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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nothing is impossible

Living by that motto can often be a recipe for disaster

The thing about bringing up an entire generation with the motto ‘Nothing is impossible’ is that in time they come to believe in it.

So, what’s wrong with that, you ask. After all, isn’t that the spirit that turned a young, mixed-race boy from a single-parent family into the President of the United States? Yes, we can, said Barack Obama to the people of America. And yes, he could.

So, what could possibly be wrong with thinking that you can achieve anything you set your mind to?

Well, nothing at all. So long as you are focused on finding a cure for cancer, mapping the human genome, breaking the record in the 100 metre sprint, or turning bacon into an ice-cream flavour.

But what happens when people decide to implement this ‘nothing is impossible’ credo in their private lives as well? When they start to believe that they only have to want something hard enough and work at it long enough to get it? When they begin to think: I want it; ergo, I must have it.

What happens when we all become victims of a culture of entitlement, in which wants become needs, and needs turn into necessities? And we start to adopt extreme means to fulfil these, no matter what the cost.

Take the recent reports about IVF mums, who keep getting older and older with every year. First it was the 30-somethings who went in for assisted births, then the age limit went up to 40-something, and now even 50 and 60-somethings have breached this barrier.

Apparently, a baby is now a lifestyle choice; something that every woman has a right to. Her personal circumstances simply don’t come into it. And you are a politically incorrect bigot if you even dare to enquire into them. Every woman, whether she is married or single, straight or gay, young or old, rich or poor, has a right to bring a child into the world.

Fair enough. The maternal instinct is a very powerful one and is not to be denied at the worst of times. My problem is with the kind of medical interventions that are brought into play to make this dream possible.

Does it really make sense to make babies for women who have already reached menopause? Are these even their babies in the biological sense in that they are conceived with the help of donor eggs? If these are not their genetic children, then why not just adopt? And if you are going to adopt, then why not do it early enough so that you are more statistically likely to be around for your child’s college graduation?

But no, none of this is an issue. It is enough that a woman wants a baby that she can carry to term and give birth to. I want it; ergo, I must have it.

So what if the oldest IVF mother in India – in her 60s when she gave birth – died a mere three years after her triplets were born? Some of you may well say that at least she proved that nothing was impossible before she died; she fulfilled her dream of becoming a mother.

But seriously, is every dream meant to come true? Is every prayer meant to be answered? Is every desire meant to be fulfilled?

Or are we just setting ourselves up for disappointment, disillusionment, desperation – not to mention early death – when we start to believe this? And whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we are starting to believe it.

We believe that we are entitled to look like those pictures we see in glossy magazines. If our noses don’t match up, we’ll get a plastic surgeon to fix them. If our breasts fail the test, we will get them artificially enhanced. If our complexions are not good enough, we will apply bleach, whitening creams, glycolic peels and God-alone-knows what else until they are as fair and lovely as that of the models.

If our brows are beginning to get furrowed, it’s time to bring on the Botox. If our cheeks are losing that youthful bloom, then a spot of Restylene would not go amiss. If our arms are too flabby and our waists more jelly than belly, we will hit the gym for hours on end to become just as toned. If that doesn’t work, well then there’s always liposuction.

When it comes to personal improvement, we will stop at nothing no matter what the cost to our health – both mental and physical. And it’s only a matter of time before other areas of our lives are just as infected with this ‘nothing is impossible’ spirit.

It’s already begun to spill over in our expectations of our loved ones as well. Our children are expected to be models of good behaviour, acing exams at school, doing well at sports, playing one musical instrument or other, helping out with chores at home. Our partners and spouses have to bear the burden of our romantic fantasies in which no couple ever rows, husbands remember every anniversary and birthday, and wives never ever have headaches when it’s time for bed.

It’s no wonder really that we are all beginning to collapse under the pressure. Which is why I have a new credo to live life by: I don’t have it; ergo, I don’t want it.

I think this one will work much better for me.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Off the shelf

How you shop says a lot about who you are

One of my hyper-organised friends has a fool-proof method of scoring the best merchandise at designer sales. She goes to the store a week before the sale begins, tries on all the styles she likes, checks out which size works for her (yes, it can vary wildly from label to label), makes a mental note of the items she wants, and then leaves without buying a thing.

Then, when the sale finally begins, she waltzes into the store – which is now heaving with desperate ladies riffling through the rails – picks up all the items she has shortlisted and walks out with a serene smile on her face. No unseemly wrestling with other contenders on the shop floor for her; no queuing up for ages to access the changing room; no agonising over which size to try on. She knows what she wants, where it is displayed, which sizes work. Needless to say, she ends up with the best bargains ever.

Watching her in action a couple of weeks ago, I suddenly occurred to me that you can tell a great deal about people by the way they shop. Never mind the usual clich├ęs about how retail therapy is the best cure for depression or how unfulfilled rich ladies try to find nirvana in a new pair of shoes, shopping can actually be a great window into human behaviour if only we cared to look.

Think about it. Every single person you know probably has a distinctive shopping style, give or take a few quirks. And nearly always this style mirrors their personality.

Speaking for myself, I have a somewhat militaristic approach to shopping. I only ever go shopping if I need something specific. I have a list of favourite shops which I hit every time. I end up buying much the same type of thing. If I really like something, I buy two of the same, so that if one wears out I have a replacement handy. And I like shopping alone; I can tell what makes my bum look big, thank you very much.

In fact, I find it exquisite torture to shop with other people. All that window-shopping as we walk through a mall; that endless browsing through rails of clothes we have no intention of buying; the sighing over stuff we couldn’t possibly afford; the tedious trying-on of styles that are clearly wrong; the incessant poll-taking (Does this work on me? What do you think?); and then the agonising afterwards when someone or the other inevitably develops buyer’s remorse.

Frankly, I can think of better ways to spend a Saturday afternoon – reading a good book, taking a walk in the park, clearing out my closet, squeezing my blackheads – than this sort of needless drama. But as a way of getting to know people and all their little idiosyncrasies, I can’t think of anything better than a little light shopping.

Based on my observations over many misspent decades, here is my by-no-means-final list of shopping types. Please feel free to add your own.

• The What-If Shopper: This kind of person likes nothing better than a bit of fantasy shopping. So, he trawls the stores checking out anything from expensive cars and the latest gadgets to high-end designer garments and luxury watches. He knows he can’t afford them, but a man can dream, right? What if he made a million bucks one day? What if he found a rich girlfriend? What if he won the lottery? What if...

• The If-Only Shopper: This kind of person treats shopping as an exercise in positive reinforcement and hence shops for the person she would like to be rather than the one she is at the moment. So, she chooses a dress one size too small in the hope that she will fit into it after her latest diet. She stocks up on healthy food to make sure that she sticks to her diet. She buys self-help books to keep herself motivated. She pays through her nose for every miracle cream on the market. She lives in hope that one day she will be her ideal self – and every purchase she makes is imbued with that belief.

• The Oh-Shit Shopper: So named because this shopper always utters the immortal words “Oh shit” the moment he exits the store with his purchases. Because no sooner is his credit card back in his pocket than he knows that he has made a terrible mistake. He should have checked if the next-door store had better merchandise; he is sure he could have got a better deal across town; and those sunglasses were just a ghastly, expensive mistake.

• The Anything-But Shopper: This is the person who heads out to do food shopping but gets side-tracked at the make-up counter. Who decides to buy some curtains for the house but comes home with a plasma television instead. Who goes out to buy a birthday present for a friend, but ends up with a new wardrobe for herself. Yes, that’s right, she ends up buying anything but what she set out for.

• The No-Nonsense Shopper: Yes, he’s the one who goes shopping only when he needs something, frequents only his usual haunts, buys only what he set out for and heads straight back home. (And, of course, sometimes he is a she.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A friend in deed

Facebook limits the number of friends you can have at 5,000; but in real life, you are lucky if you can muster five

So, what do you make of the petition to do away with the upper limit of friends a person is allowed to have on Facebook? The current maximum stands at 5,000; go above this number and your account is disabled and you are frozen out of the site. In protest, the more gregarious Facebookers have started an on-line petition to beseech the site’s administrators to not be so, uh, preachy and let them have as many friends as they want. So, those of you who want to ‘friend’ more than 5,000 people know exactly where to sign up.

As for me, I’m still reeling from the realisation that there are people out there who have 5,000 friends – and still want more. I’m not sure I even know 5,000 people, let alone have that number lining up to ‘friend’ me on Facebook. In fact, if I add up all the numbers, I would probably be lucky if I reached a thousand, if that.

Don’t get me wrong. I may not be the world’s foremost expert on social media, but I am not a total idiot either. I understand that a friend on Facebook is not really a friend in the traditional sense of the term. Facebook friends can be people who you know very peripherally or maybe not at all. They may include work colleagues, business contacts, friends of friends, complete strangers, hell, even cyber stalkers and the like.

But even so, 5,000 ‘friends’? You have got to be kidding.

Of course, if you believe social scientists then the number of friends a person can realistically hope to make is way below this mark. British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a magic number: 150. This, according to him, was the number of people any one person can have stable social relationships with. Dunbar’s number, as it somewhat inevitably came to be called, is based on the size of the neo-cortex of the human brain and the size of communities in hunter-gatherer societies.

Dunbar’s theory is borne out by recent anecdotal evidence on social networking sites which shows that no matter how many ‘friends’ a person may have – 500 or 5,000 – meaningful and regular communication is restricted to just around 150 people. Human beings, it would seem, are hardwired to interact within relatively small, well-integrated groups in which most people know each other and have some sort of social link with one another.

And yet, the moment you sign up for any social networking site, you find all kinds of characters crawling out of the woodwork, asking to be your friend. People you barely said hello to in school or college suddenly want to be `added’ to your list. Colleagues whom you haven’t seen in years want to link up again. Everyone wants to get back in touch even though there is probably a good reason why you lost touch to begin with. And then, there are the loonies: complete strangers who want to be your friend simply because they like your profile picture.

My guess is that all those people who already have a few thousand people on their ‘friend’ list and are now clamouring to ask for more, simply sign on anyone who sends in a request. After all, social media sites are all about showing off these days, about how well-connected and popular you are. So, as far as friends go, the dictum seems to be: the more the merrier.

But really, when you think about it, how many people would you call a friend? In my experience, very few people qualify if you are being completely honest with yourself. Few childhood friends survive the transition to adulthood. If you are very fortunate indeed, you probably still have ten people in your life who knew you as a child. College buddies have a slightly better survival rate, but even so you probably aren’t in regular touch with more than a dozen. Work colleagues tend to fall off the radar pretty soon once you switch jobs with just a handful making the cut as friends. And few of us know our neighbours well enough to call them acquaintances, leave alone friends.

In fact, when it comes down to it, there are very few people you can call friends in the real sense of the term. In my book, only those who qualify on the following five counts make the list.

• Someone you can call at two in the morning simply because you are in a blue funk and can’t fall asleep.
• Someone you rely on to tell you that your bum does look big in those pair of jeans (and those blonde highlights really don’t work).
• Someone who drops in to see you with a steaming cup of cappuccino/chicken soup when you are at home nursing a cold (and whom you can greet at the door in your pyjamas).
• Someone you would trust to look after your kids if you were to die in a horrible accident.
• Someone you can have a slam-dunk row with – name-calling, phone-banging, abuse-shouting, etc. – secure in the knowledge that it will make no difference to your relationship.

Frankly, if you have five people in your life with whom you can do all of the above, you should count yourself lucky.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Men in heels
Yes, seriously – that seems to be the new fashion trend

Only a few months ago I had blithely announced in this column that women were the only suckers for high heels, mincing around in vertiginous stilettos and clunky wedges. There was a reason, I said, why the only shoes that men ever made a fetish about were trainers – comfortable, lightweight and made for speed. And any designer who tried to sell them the kind of punishing high heels that women wear on a daily basis would be laughed out of the business.

Well, now I stand (in my own two-inch kitten heels, which are thankfully back in fashion) corrected. Apparently, the latest trend in men’s fashion is high heels. Of course, these are not the kind of high heels that any woman would deign to recognise. Stacked just a few inches high and designed to hide beneath the fall of a well-cut trouser, these are styled for discretion rather than valour. These are not flashy heels meant to catch your eyes; they are meant to be near-invisible, granting a tactful (and tactical) advantage of a couple of inches to its wearer.

Personally, I blame Nicolas Sarkozy. The French President is disconcertingly self-conscious about being only 5 feet 5 inches (which makes him an inch shorter than that other famous French short man, Napoleon Bonaparte). And the acquisition of a glamorous supermodel wife in Carla Bruni, who is a full five inches taller than him, has made matters worse. Not only is the willowy Bruni banned from wearing heels while appearing alongside her husband (though I am sure there are worse fates than living your life in Dior ballet pumps) but Sarkozy himself gets his shoes custom-made to add a discreet heel to each pair.

But perhaps, I shouldn’t be too harsh about poor little Nicolas. It can’t be easy being the only world leader who has to stand on a bench while addressing the media alongside Barack Obama so that his head does not disappear behind the lectern. Or to have the British Chancellor George Osborne remove a stool from behind a podium, referring to it disparagingly as the Sarkozy box. Or even to cope with reports that the British Prime Minister joked about ‘hidden dwarves’ while referring to a photograph of himself and Sarkozy.

If you think about it, it is probably daily humiliations like these that lead to the small man syndrome, where short men try to over-compensate by being more aggressive and truculent. That’s probably why Napoleon felt compelled to conquer the world (well, okay, Europe) and why Sarkozy himself loses his temper so spectacularly so often (or why he surrounds himself with short people while on stage, so that he appears taller by comparison).

But whatever you might think about Nicolas and his obsession with appearing just a few inches taller, you have got to give him credit for one thing: making it okay for men to wear high heels. Until now, high heels for men were the stuff of drag-queen dressing, being restricted to distinctly campy circles. They were famously worn by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, which says it all really. Or they featured in the menswear collections of such glam-rock designers like Gareth Pugh.

But now high heels for men have gone mainstream. Status heels, in which a heel of 1 and 1/4 inch is visible to the eye while another 1 and ½ inch of heel is hidden within the shoe, are now worn by short men across the globe without a hint of embarrassment.

I am pretty sure that these ‘status heels’ have also been pressed into duty in the wardrobes of such Indian actors as Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, who could do with a boost in the height department. After all, if Tom Cruise can work a stacked heel on the red carpet, alongside his statuesque wife, Katie Holmes, why should our stars be caught out short? (Okay, bad pun, I know.)

We all know the stunts that male stars pull to ensure that they don’t look shorter than their female co-stars in the movies and at public events like premieres. They stand a couple of steps above on a staircase so that they tower above the taller ladies. While shooting in long shot, they make the women walk alongside in a little trench so that they appear taller in comparison. They stand on a bench while filming close-ups so that they gain a few inches.

And now, like Nicolas Sarkozy, they can wear high heels as well.

But it’s not just stars and celebrities who seem gladdened by the arrival of high heels for men. Most of the men of my acquaintance are quite taken by the idea of gaining a couple of inches as well. They can now stand taller beside their wives/girlfriends, they can look their boss in the eye, they can look down on their children like the superior beings they undoubtedly are. And everyone will look at them differently too.

Well, at least that’s how the theory goes. All research into the subject suggests that taller men do better in life than their shorter counterparts. They get better jobs, are promoted more often, make more money, marry better looking women, have more children, are better respected in society.

And if high heels can help them achieve all this, then how could you possibly grudge them a pair of ‘status heels’ to add to their status?