order, power, and the importance of history – hitler in india

here’s a topic i‘ve discussed in passing for the past five years and now i suppose it is time to write on it. this article just came out, covering, roughly, hitler, gandhi, and bal thackarey in indian political discussion. i am not entirely certain of article’s claims on the extent to which admiration of hitler and dissatisfaction with gandhi are part of the same conversation. or, how much of either can be attributed to thackerey. but i have certainly witnessed both the admiration and the dissatisfaction bits. i defer to maximum city on thackerey. i leave the consideration of gandhi and the birth-rupture of the indian nation-state for others.

when i first moved to chennai, i was fairly surprised to see copies of mein kampf available for sale on the streets. this sight, in turn, heightened my surprise when speaking with even well-educated indians who had never heard of judiasm (by the way, trying to use ‘you know how buddha was a hindu…’ doesn’t quite work to explain the old testament and jesus).

this ‘what are jews?’ point is disturbing for two at least two reasons.

first, india is home to several important and old jewish communities, including in kerala and in bombay (the latter were not missed by the perpetrators of the 26 November attacks in bombay). in one of my favorite books, (indian) author amitav ghosh feels a connection with an indian slave of a jewish businessman in in an antique land, placing jews in this historical context of ancient trading between india and the mediterranean. judiasm is a part of indian history and people not knowing it points to a deeper problem in awareness about ‘others’ and even ‘self.’

second, further, this point suggests large omissions in the global history taught in schools and popularly known. actually, not just global history, but indian history as well, since subhas chandra bose reached out to, and was rebuffed by, hitler to help with independence from the british. for all of hitler’s mis/use of aryan mythology, he didn’t actually seem to think all that highly of the people of the subcontinent. one might think that sort of insult would stick.

(third, the experimentation under the nazis is a key driver of research ethics today, which is yet another avenue to learn about some of the horrors in the holocaust.)

overlooking a relatively small religious group isn’t the only aberration i’ve found – also, not having heard of poland or proclaiming that south indians are the darkest-skinned people on earth or proclaiming complete ignorance (and lack of curiousity) about the beliefs of one’s muslim next-door neighbors. again, among people with master’s degrees.

to be honest, i was surprised that the students mentioned by dilip d’souza knew hitler had committed mass, systematic murder. in my experience talking with (some! only some!)  folks in india, many admire hitler and stalin (even naming children after them) in a way completely devoid of context. as far as i can tell, they see power, authority, oratory, and the ability to impose order without knowing anything of the whole ‘invading poland’ and ‘final solution’ bits. which is precisely what makes it all alarming.

it seems to be part of a craving for order and power that makes people name children after stalin, admire hitler, and proclaim that things would be better if india were more like singapore. a problem with this is that these longings seem divorced from history and context as evidenced, in part, by never having heard of ‘jews.’ it’s kind of hard to imagine what sort of instruction could teach about hitler without mentioning jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and so on. (yes, i know that sexuality and homosexuality in india are whole other cans of worms.)

of course, trying to cross the street in india – and seeing the messiness and corruption of democracy everywhere – everyone has an occasional longing for someone to impose order. the impulse for a philosopher-king, or a benevolent dictator, or someone to nicely just make decisions and get things done have been popular in the past and even now. but, as churchill said, democracy is still the best thing going given the options. sen has certainly commented on the non-need of strong-arm values to bring about development in asia and elsewhere.

democracy relies on having informed citizens – a civil civil society (e.g. here and one of my favorite diatribes, toward the end, here). has done since rome. will always do. this suggests we all have a resposibility in being informed and helping to inform.

in india, in the US, in a lot of places, we need to do better with our history, current affairs, and civics lessons. incomplete histories are dangerous things. it is not just those who don’t learn their history that are condemned to repeat it but also those who half-learn their history.

history is full of imperfect people that can teach us both how we should do things and how not to do things. we should know about both sides of past leaders. in the US ,we may largely equate hitler with evil and the fight against him as the last war we so clearly had a moral obligation to fight. anne frank is more or less required reading and we’ve seen cabaret or life is beautiful (the latter i had to watch before heading off to undergrad). this can make it all the more alarming when we hear people praise hitler or the nazi movement more generally.

some of the horrors of nazi germany may not seem so singular to those in colonies more recently gaining their independence. with good reason, and as we all should, people in india and elswhere learn and feel that the brits and americans have been plenty destructive in their own ways. this is certainly true. but hitler is a long way past imperfect and destructive. anyone looking to praise his oratory and authority needs to be fully cognizant of that.

(small addendum, 19 july 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/05/hitler-fried-chicken_n_3550351.html)

(19 feb 2014: from @urmy_shukla: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/LEADER-ARTICLEBRHitler-as-Hero-Society-Without-a-Moral-Compass/articleshow/32382342.cms. as she notes, strangely written but gets at the odd trend, which was yet again a topic of conversation following someone pulling out a swastik-ed bandana this weekend at ragasthan.)

diwali and drugs – lessons from drug sales in india

as, you know, possibly from watching The Colbert Report, it’s dwali. as stephan and wikipedia note, diwali is the festival of lights or lamps. 

being in india – or at least chennai – however, one might be hard-pressed to think that it was not the festival of sound (also, sweet pongal).  firecrackers – or ‘crackers’ – play a large role. at all hours. regardless of any noise ordinances. regardless of whether my parents thought i was under assault when talking to me on the phone. seriously, if you know a war vet that still jumps at loud noises, please avoid indian cities during diwali. dr. dischord and the awful dynne would be so pleased.

so it was (ok, and because of a hard mattress) that i went out in search of sleeping pills. up till that point, i had not needed to actually purchase drugs in india. since part of my background is in private drug sellers, i was fairly confident i would be able to get something that would get me through the exploding nights of the rest of diwali. the private drug-retail market in india is fairly infamous for being unregulated – or, ‘the free-est market’ as (many) people thought was a funny joke. imagine my surprise, then, when at drug shop after drug shop, sellers heard my request, smiled sheepishly, asked for my presciption and, when i could not produce one, refused to sell the pills to me.

 i finally found one shop at which the vendor, after looking around furtively, cut off some pills for a blister pack, stuck them in a little paper bag, and sent me off. i didn’t actually know what i had been given, so worked to reconstruct the letters visible on the back of the blister pack with my dad over the phone (no internet in chennai apt – this was 2007). i had some sort of anti-anxiety meds.

i tried asking around after that as to why my mission had been much more difficult than expected. the few non-‘i don’t know’ answers i got had nothing to do with fear of state regulation of pharmaceuticals but, rather, social censure. socially, people seemed to link sleeping pills, anti-depressents, and similar drugs with attempting to commit suicide. it was the community backlash from potentially being implicated in abetting a suicide attempt to which drug vendors were responding.

besides trying a few other times to buy sleeping pills and having difficulity, i haven’t researched this issue with any particular diligence. but, if true, it may suggest ways to work on getting drug vendors to behave appropriately, even if the formal regulatory system isn’t likely to catch up any time soon.

getting out the vote in columbus

I made a very last-minute decision to go to Columbus, Ohio for the get-out-the-vote effort for the few days before the election and while I am still in a zombie-like, sleep-deprived and fast-food filled state, I am very glad I did. Our ‘turf’ was in Franklin County and we worked in predominantly African-American, low-income areas. There were far, far more foreclosures and vacant houses, deadbolts even on screendoors, and aggressive dogs (coupled with a far lesser amount of aggressive fencing) than I had imagined – in short, for a city that in my mind is OSU, it looked an awful like Detroit and Taylor, MI, where my Grandmolly used to live.

Our (vans of Harvard & MIT grad students) job in the two days leading up to the election and on “E Day” was to get to likely Obama supporters who were not as likely to actually make it out to vote. Most of the work of persuasion about who to vote for was abandoned by that point – save for a slight scripted plug for Obama’s auto industry intervention – so most of our knocking was on sympathetic, if misinformed, doors. The micro-targeting wasn’t perfect but it was pretty impressive. If I had to make one suggestion, it would be to do more with GPS so that the ‘walksheets’ could be ordered in a logical walking pattern. We all caught on pretty quickly but at least my first time out consisted of a lot of inefficiency and back-tracking. We had a script and a continuously rotating supply of literature to fasten, hang, or stick to doors of those not home. Our main goal was to make sure folks knew where and when to vote and what they needed to bring with them.

And, gracious, for the most targeted state in the Union, a lot of people did not know when and where to vote. On my first afternoon out – Sunday – very few people were actually at home but, finally, Savannah answered the door. She answered the door wrapped in a bed-sheet. She was pretty sure she would be able to vote at work. Over the course of the week, we met all kinds of people who thought they could vote up till Friday, had already voted at the pantry three weeks back, and so on. We also heard about robocalls that told them that if they had a parking ticket or something else on the record, they were not allowed to vote. In the end, there really wasn’t a replacement for the face-to-face conversation for information and encouragement.

They took good care of us at our staging location, which was in some sort of unoccupied office building with no heat and only one toilet for highly caffeinated and cold women. They had space heaters but between those, coffeemakers, powerstrips for charging phones, etc, we kept tripping the circuits and had to finally introduce an only-one-plug-per-wall rule. There was a lot of food, often homemade lasagna or casserole in big silver foil trays. One of the older African-American women helping organization the station carefully explained to me how she had made the casserole without meat – because, she had heard that there were some people who did not eat meat. Meanwhile, another woman made gluten-free cookies to bring in and the older African-American woman nearly fell out of her chair at the concept – ‘You mean cookies without flour?!?’

Our knocking schedule was one sweep by every house on our list on Sunday, encouraging early voting and providing Election Day info. Then, Monday, we did another sweep, focusing on Election Day. On Tuesday, we did three passes by all houses on our list, stopping only when we were convinced that had actually already voted, either by absentee ballot or early voting or simply earlier in the day. Some people were fairly shocked – is an, you guys have been here every day this week. “Yes, and we are going to keep coming back until you vote.” It wasn’t enough just for them to say they voted, we wanted to know where, how were the lines, where was their sticker. Fortunately, most people were fairly good natured, although several didn’t seem keen to open the door and instead just yelled through the window or from behind the door (including one genuine ‘who dat is?’ response to my knocking). And, there were some sad moments, as in ‘Is Michael home?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh, will you see him today?’ ‘No, Michael’s been in jail for three years.’ Or “No, I haven’t seen Michael in weeks, I don’t know where he is.’

Oh. Well, if Michael comes home today, can you encourage him to vote? Here’s a leaflet.

As a side note, knocking on lots of doors – loudly and often repeatedly – hurts after a while and especially in the dry cold air. There were lots of paper cuts from the literature and bruised knuckles and experiments with alternative knocking techniques.

Anyway, our first evening out for dinner while we are still bedazzled and be-stickered with Obama gear, we were approached by a nice lady who was one of these rumored-to-exist undecided voters. It really came down to abortion; she was, by most of the rest of her positions, probably a textbook Obama supporter. She was staunchly Catholic; her just-ordained deacon husband waved from across the restaurant. I am not sure if she quite realized that she had stumbled onto a table of policy geeks and folks who had all recently read Friedman’s article on ‘why I am pro-life’ (also, commentary, here) and wielded similar arguments. The premise is that if you believe in the sanctity of life, you should be in it for the whole lifespan and should be generally against war and capital punishment and other ways of increasing constraints on healthy, happy, and long lives. It is a slam against the cognitive dissonance that must be maintained to care so desperately about life right up until it comes out of the mother’s body, at which point it can be ignored until it is potentially grandma facing a death panel. And, of the course, the cognitive dissonance in maintaining that the government’s hands should be kept off everything except things you don’t like. It is, overall, plea for consistency, coherence, and compassion in positions.

Our new friend was a very reasonable woman who is pro-life in all its senses – against capital punishment, against war – and just wanted to have a real talk about an issue that was important to her but had been turned into a polarized sound/image-byte-off. She told us about the floods of commercials and placards in town that showed – literally, graphically – abortion as fetus murder. She was able to laugh about the seeming absurdity of the image of all of us coming over from Boston/Cambridge with the intent of supporting or carrying out fetus-murder, as though that is what a ‘pro-choice’ crusader would do. We (it was about 8 to 1 in the conversation; she was a good sport) also raised issues about why abortion comes about and, therefore, how to prevent it. For one, we pointed out that sex education and access to contraceptives were pretty good ways of limiting the need for an abortion as a means of post-conception birth control. Two, we pointed out that abortions are likely to happen anyway and, in part, the issue is whether it happens safely or not. She was well-aware that the means existed with or without a law but taking the step of legalizing it was very difficult for her. Third, we talked about an issue that comes up very rarely in the conversation but one that obviously appealed to her – adoption. She pointed out that she knows many people who would help support a pregnant woman who was not getting the help she needed and were also willing to adopt children, even if they were, at she said, mentally disabled or HIV-positive. It is certainly true that the debate about alternatives to abortion has very much been shut-down in this country and that the adoption system does not facilitate these options and conversations.

In the end, we do not know how she voted, but we are pleased that we were able to give her the kind of even-toned, considered discussion she had been needing and was not getting in this overly exposed state – the nature of the campaign had sacrificed too much depth. We also gave her a chance to talk about something else that had happened: some Romney-Ryan supporters that had – just before they came to dinner – come to their church with a huge stack of pamphlets to hand out in church. Which is illegal and the couple said so. The R-R team said, OK, well, you can just put them on the windshields of your parishioners – a suggestion from which they also demurred. Finally, they tried to give the pamphlets into her 10-year-old daughter’s hands to take since her parents were not being compliant.  It was in this frame of mind that she had approached us for a real conversation.

Another interesting character from our trip was a nice man that I will call ‘John’ – just in case. John had reached out to the Obama effort to offer his house as a place for people to stay. John had recently purchased farmland and a lovely, large house about 30 minutes outside Columbus and was willing to share. John himself had an interesting story besides being incredibly kind to give 15 people soft surfaces on which to crash (other parts of our team – on voter protection issues – were on the floor of a church and had no showers). John had worn many hats over the course of his life: the present one was a cowboy hat. He had gone to divinity school but decided not to become a preacher and instead talk Latin, religion, and American history at a Catholic high school. He then got started in IT entrepreneurship and, not so long ago, decided he hadn’t been a farmer yet. He was also just starting a catering company, specializing in chili. Just a few weeks before we arrived, had had been kicked in the chest by one of his horses and had a fractured sternum, though you wouldn’t have guessed it. John had been a lifelong Republican prior to the lead-up to the 2008 election. He was somewhat frustrated with Republican leadership and was interested in this guy whose life story seemed to parallel his own – his family was originally from Kansas but he grew up in Hawaii, where his father was stationed. This was enough to intrigue him and, though he doesn’t agree with everything Obama has done, he has stuck with him.

The final main character of our time in Columbus was a woman I will call Tisha. We heard about Tisha the first day we arrived at our ‘staging location’ (we were stationed at one main one but also helped at others when they had a high volunteer ‘flake rate’). On one of the previous rounds of knocking, Tisha had indicated that she would need a ride to the polls but we did not have her phone number and had never caught her at home since. One of the main coordinators (‘A’) at the staging location told us to keep an eye out for Tisha. We were trying to help facilitate rides, although we also heard that, interestingly, Somali cab drivers generally gave free rides to the polls on Election Day. We also heard of one case of a policeman taking an elderly lady and waiting the hour while she voted.

As it happened, my main buddy P, had Tisha on her turf list on the last day (the day of Three Knocks). We were in the same area – she had even addresses and I had odd. The last day gave you time to really get invested in these folks – if, on the first pass they said they were going to go later in the day, but they still hadn’t gone by the second pass, then you were pretty determined by the third one to get them out the door. But Tisha was not home on any of the three passes. Throughout the time week/end, P and I had been fairly creative with adding embellishments to the literature we were meant to leave at unanswered doors (I was also creative with the placement of the literature, which may or may not have been appreciated. We were not supposed to leave literature in mailboxes – quite a few of my pieces of literature were left sticking out of jack o’lanterns’ mouths, hopefully to the amusement of recipients.) We would add information on voting times and locations. I would add notes complimenting their Halloween decorations or the coolness of their names and so on. I woke up one woman around 11:00am. She promised she had set her alarm for 2:30 to go vote. I left a note saying I hoped she was well-rested and ready to vote. Anyway, on the last pass, Pamela left a note for Tisha that said that she knew she needed a ride and left A’s number on the last piece of literature. Tisha was our last stop – around 18:00 and the polls closed at 19:30 – and then we were shipped off to cover another turf. When we got back to the staging location at 20:00 or so, A happily announced that Tisha had called at about 19:00 and was whisked off to vote just in time.

Whew.

snakes in bangalore

from a letter home from bangalore in 2010

Mean people. This story doesn’t actually start with mean people. It starts with the wide variety of people – mostly people from the state of Bihar, I am told – that sell sundry goods on the streets. I am not talking about the people who set up shop somewhere on a blanket or tarp on the sidewalk to sell socks or clothes or bangles or DVDs. Rather, I mean the wandering vendors. First are the ones that wander near traffic lights and come up to cars when stopped, akin to windshield washers in US cities. Some of the things they sell are reasonably practical and you could see yourself possibly buying something – a rag to wash your windshield, or sunglasses, or magazines and books if stuck in unexpected
traffic. Sometimes umbrellas during monsoon season; sometimes electric tennis racquets for swatting at mosquitoes. And then, they sell toy helicopters. They aren’t small, either, these are helicopters are over a foot long, I would guess from trying to look at them without looking interested in the slightest. It is hard to imagine suddenly realizing the usefulness of a helicopter while sitting in traffic. Even if you were on your way to a kid’s birthday party or something, it seems that you wouldn’t opt from the helicopter since everyone would know precisely where you got it and roughly how much you paid. I presume that either the helicopters are actually a big seller or that they have a lot of leftovers, since they always seem to be zooming around between stopped traffic.

Similarly are the people who try to you sell you things while walking down the street – the ones who walk with you for a ways. Again, some of these items are reasonably useful and you could see yourself buying one on the street – an umbrella, sunglasses, a map. Even the idols or “Indian” trinkets probably appeal to enough tourists and such to make it worth it. And then there are the kids who get stuck (?) selling the wooden toys – namely, snakes and small backgammon sets. The snakes are the jointed ones that you hold by the tail and wave and can get to wriggle something like a snake in the air. Who decided that these items would be hot sellers on the street? Have you ever been walking down the street and felt the need for
a snake or a board game? I personally have not (though I do now have some inkling as to one situation in which such a thing could come in handy). Moreover, unlike some chains of sales where the refusal of the first item might lead the vendor to offer something more appealing to the sort of person who would refuse the first item, it seems hard to imagine that people that turn down the snake would be stoked by the backgammon set (they are always offered in that order, snake first). What’s more is that these boys are stationed every 30 feet or so down the sidewalk. I can imagine that there are some items – maybe jewelry or a new pair of sunglasses – where you initially refuse and then you think, “damn, that was silly, it’s a
reasonably good price and I could actually use a spare x.” In such a situation, this sales approach might work. But it seems hard that this scenario would play out with a snake. And yet, one boy will walk with you for 10 to 20 feet, emphatically saying “snake, madam” and as soon as you have made it clear that you have no interest in snakes, the next one is upon you with the exact same offer.

Anyway, all of this is by way of prelude to the next bit, to attempt to convince you that I have had a reasonable amount of interaction with fake – but with such real movements! – snakes of late. Also, I should point out that pedestrian traffic here is usually fairly fluid between the sidewalk and the road, moving from one to the other as the conditions of one get worse or someone is blocking one or the other. But, of course, sometimes the sidewalk is completely blocked and you have to opt for the road. Conversely, sometimes vehicles are parked by the curb, so that you cannot step off the sidewalk to go around the non/sentient obstacle.

Such was my luck the other day, when I was returning to work after a quick errand at lunch time. I can around a corner where a van was parked, blocking the ability to step off into the street, and was approached by two women carrying baskets. They were sort of round and squat baskets, like a slightly puffed up version of the sort of thing from which you would expect to have tortillas served. The actual sequence of events is a bit lost on me now but it seems that one woman asked for money; I tried to move around her and was blocked by the younger one, who grabbed my arm, and then the initial one opened her basket, which contained a snake that I am 99% sure was quite real and quite hissy. And, in one of
these India-type moments where you ask yourself later “did I really just do that to another human being?,” I took the blocking girl by the shoulders and forcibly moved her out of my way. Not very nice, perhaps, but then, neither was the snake.

how is the body doing?

morning ayurveda lessons

dr. b, dr. s, & i

from a letter home from chennai in 2008, when i was there studying diabetes. drs. s & b, i hope it is OK to include this photograph!

To help add context to my research, I have undertaken a series of interviews with doctors and dieticians at the hospital to see how “biomedicine” in India “talks” about diabetes.  I have also interviewed five Ayurvedic practitioners on the same.  While four easily obliged to doing a one-hour interview on the topic, Dr. S, an 85-year-old practitioner declared that we could not begin with the diseased state, but had to begin at the beginning of Ayurveda.  Thus began some two weeks of early morning classes on Ayurveda by Dr. S and his son.  Dr. S is much aggrieved that the world does not know Sanskrit, and therefore cannot read and interpret the Ayurvedic texts for themselves to apply them to all aspects of living and research, which they would surely enhance.

Thus, every class includes at least one promise that I will learn Sanskrit (he swears I can do this quickly, which is how I have ended up buying three old (heavy!) ayurvedic textbooks).  The class also usually includes Dr. B (his son) reading in Sanskrit (Dr. S is nearly blind) from the texts, Dr. S interrupting when he remembers the verse to finish it off, and then usually his chiding his son on the fact that his Sanskrit is not up to snuff.

One discussion centered on the separation of the body, mind, sense and soul, the body primarily being a vehicle for the soul, the essence of the individual.  (After this class, I learned to begin our conversations not with “how are you?” but rather “how is the body?”).  Anyway, during this discussion, presumably to help illustrate the point, he said: You see, the soul is youthful, the soul is bubbling over with Ayurveda…but THE BODY is fatigued and THE BODY is SWEATING.”  By this point, he had risen out of his chair and removing his two shirts to relieve the sweating.  To prove his state, I was asked to both examine the shirts for their wetness and to feel them, in case one sensory experience was inadequate.

Then, addressing an invisible audience, he continued, pointing emphatically at his collarbone: THE COLLARBONE is DISlocated because THE BODY has fallen three times in the bathroom since January.

Since then, I have learned many things about his bodily state that I would have just as soon not know.  For example, he has a catch in the lower back due to an excess of wind cause by eating too many fried foods.  He also, at 75, suffered from weak urine flow, which he corrected through self-manipulation of the prostate…

sunglasses (googles) in bombay

this is from the summer i spent in bombay (2009), when I was living in dharavi and part of a research project on an unregistered slum near reay road station (i’ll call this community RR).

as many of you may know, i am pretty attached to my sunglasses.  not attached in the sense that i have a favorite pair – because a single pair of sunglasses rarely lasts me long enough to form that kind of connection with them.  but, for the most part, they live on my head or in my face and, India being a sunny place, seem a perfectly reasonable part of my attire here. to be honest, i think they are appropriate attire in just about any weather or degree of darkness (along with corey hart, though for different reasons).

imagine my consternation, then, when we arrived in RR and kiran, one of my research partners, suggested that i not wear my sunglasses.  he explained that people would take it as a mark of celebrity and they would be less likely to talk with me.  so, now when kiran and i ride into RR, i obliging take off my sunglasses just before we turn into the community and slip them out of my bag – and put them back on the second we turn out of the community at the end of the work.

indeed, sunglasses do seem to carry a considerable amount of status – for something that i am pretty sure you can buy cheaply on the street here.  they are a major point of ‘conversation’ at breakfast at the home where i am staying.  a good chunk of breakfast time is spent with different people trying on the sunglasses (generally referred to as ‘googles’), me taking pictures of assorted people wearing the sunglasses, then passing around the camera so everyone can see said pictures and have a good laugh over the precise thing that they had just witnessed.  this, at least so far, seems to provide endless amusement.

traveling pants (absolutely nothing to do with a sisterhood)

From a letter home from India in 2008:

The topic of this section is pants.  It requires a small introduction.  For the most part, I wear my own pants and have purchased some of the long tops with slits up the sides (kurta) that most of the girls with whom I work (unmarried, so generally pre-sari) wear.  Most of the girls buy entire outfits, with coordinating pants, top and shawl (salwar kameez).  I do not do this.  First, I think the shawls can a pain to wear all the time.  Second, I am not used to ‘outfits.’  I like trying different pants and tops together.  The outfit concept seemed quite stifling.  Third, I despise the pants.  They come in two basic varieties, neither of which stretches or moves with you the way pants do at home.  The first are mildly balloony at the top and then tight all the way down – basically, jodhpurs (churidar).  These don’t do it for me.  The currently fashionable pants are huge, with a zillion pleats at the top and then ballooning out and coming in tight at the ankle.  To be sure, they look quite elegant on some woman.  However, those will always and forever mean only one thing to me: they are MC Hammer pants, and I cannot wear them.

Anyway, I had been trying to do my own laundry.  Then, I accidentally dyed two pieces of clothing the wrong color.  I guess I wasn’t thinking that the dyes here were quite so strong — or just wasn’t thinking in general.  Frankly, it is probably the best tie-dye work I have ever done, except that since it was unplanned, it is only dyed in some places.  Besides this, I just felt that my clothes were never really clean.  So, I have in and took them to a laundry/dry cleaners.  As far as I can tell, laundromats are not are not an option here.  And, I had been putting off using the laundry for another reason.  They keep your clothes for a week, so I had to go on a shopping trip so I had enough clothes to last for the week while the other half were being washed.  Once that was done, off the first round of clothes went.  About an hour after I left the clothes, I got a panicked call from the man at the laundry.  ‘The green pants you left?  The bottom hem is gone.  I mean, it is entirely gone.’

‘Oh dear,’ I replied.  ‘Well, please wash them anyway.’  That’s what I said.  What I was thinking was: Of course it is gone.  I bought them that way.  They are created to exist without the bottom hem.  It is supposed to be cool.  I had a similar conversation with Aberna about my J Crew-orange pants that, when they were brand new, looked like they had been faded in the sun.  ‘Oooh, these pants are very faded, aren’t they?  That is not good.’  I am never sure in these conversations when to do a bit of cultural teaching and explain precisely how much I paid for the pants to look just they way they do.  This is a similar conversation as to when we talk about the fabric of my clothing.  Aberna will touch my clothes and say, ‘Oooh, do you think this fabric is good?’  What she is asking is, ‘This is not 100% cotton, is it?’  Again, there is no good way to explain that being 100% cotton is not necessarily a status symbol in the US or a weather-dictated necessity and that the only reason I check the cotton content of clothes when I am purchasing them is to see if they will shrink in the wash.

Anyway, back to distressed and faded clothes.  There was an article in Vogue not so long ago about a similar topic.  It discussed the rise of jeans as an appropriate dress-up outfit and how it worked because people knew that you could afford to wear something fancier or nicer, but you had chosen not to do so.  Moreover, I remember John telling me about some similar confusions with antique shopping in China – ‘why would you want to buy something old?’

The lesson applies here as well: the distressed, the vintage and so forth only works when it is clearly an option, not when for most people it is a necessity.  That is, it does not work here.