Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 9

This is Part Nine of a Nine Part Series

If I owned a Gucci pantsuit I would have worn that for my meeting with Mrs. H. That was how badly I needed to be in battle amour. K pronounced that my outfit was perfect for the purpose at hand. The day was easier than I had thought it would be. Today was J's day to take her favorite snack to share with the class. Given the pattern of disappointments that she had dealt with since the beginning of the week, I had not given it to her to take to her class. I told J, I would bring it in when I went to meet Mrs. H in the afternoon.

The previous night I had been talking with M about this whole fiasco and he said something interesting. "It seems to me that you bear a great deal of resentment for this teacher. Why is that ?" I had no idea but it was true that I did not like Mrs H very much. I think we started off on a bad note from the first time she sent a note home addressed to Mrs (J's Last Name). Her denial of my existence and entity peeved me greatly. From that point on, everything went further south.

The few times that we had met previously she seemed intent on establishing that I was a single mother of very slender means who could ill afford the smallest luxuries in a child's life. Finally, she gave me minimal credit for knowing what teaching methods worked best for my child. For some reason she viewed me as an adversary who was bent on challenging her authority when in fact that was far from the truth.Maybe it was something about my personality or how I came across to her. It could be one of many things.

M was telling me about the Latin root of the word resent and how that meant emptiness of feeling. His theory was that the negativity that flowed back and forth between us had caused this impasse. After reliving the events of the week many times, that negativity had magnified to the point where I had started to see myself as a complete saint and her as the complete monster. There was no longer room for shades of gray in this. It was all black against all white. I thought that was a plausible theory. While he did not deny the possibility of racial discrimination, he believed that my reaction to the situation had a lot to do with my feelings (or the emptiness of all feelings) towards her.

We had talked about my need to maintain my composure in order to have a meaningful discussion with her. He had a suggestion. "Maybe you should try wishing for something good to happen to her tomorrow. Something you would want for yourself. That might help reduce your resentment and chanel some positive energy between the two of you". I thought that was a very interesting idea and it would not hurt to try.

My meeting with Mrs. H lasted almost an hour and we did part on better terms than we had been on until then. Based on both versions of the story (J's and hers) I concluded that she had indeed treated my child differently than the other kids. It was done so subtly that a kid not as hyper sensitive as J would not even have noticed.

I could tell she was shocked at J's ability to recall events with so much clarity and compare her experience with that of the other kids. No detail was too small to have escaped her. I impressed upon Mrs H that through the course of the week, things had happened that had caused J a great deal of disappointment and knowing my child she can go in denial when disappointed. And that would explain the lie about the events on Tuesday.

She was forthcoming on her own about having called J to her desk after reading my note because she was so surprised to learn how differently J recalled the events and she was hardly a forgetful child. Our conversation was a two dimensional thing. There was one meaning that was being conveyed directly and another that was suggested in an pregnant undertone. What I did not say was just as important as what I did and I from her facial expression and body language I could tell she was guilty of what J had felt "I was treated differently than the other kids".

On the positive side, I came away realizing that race had little or nothing to do with the whole episode. Mrs H was acting out of her dislike of me and unfortunately for J she became a victim of an unspoken war between two adults. She is competing with me as a parent and for some reason believed that the poster that I helped my child create was a sign of my victory over her, that I was the superior parent despite being divorced. When I told all this to K the next day she said "Yeah, women can be catty sometimes. But its better than her being a redneck !" My other friends were relieved as well though everyone admitted that on surface it bore all the signs of discrimination. It would be imprudent of me to not continue to monitor things closely for the rest of the school year.

I am not sure what the events of the week taught me about my identity as a single parent, a mother, a minority of color in a snooty white neighborhood, about my ethnically diverse friends, my child and not to mention Mrs H. It seems like I have opened a Pandora's box and don't have the least idea how to close it. I am not sure if I consciously decided not to see the racial element in Mrs. H's behavior with J knowing fully well that I was powerless to change it.

Maybe I decided that it was me the person, the woman and the mother that she disliked and not the color of my skin and my ethnicity. Maybe I was seeking to escape from something that made me so sick that I had to lay down and rest all Saturday to recover my normal functionality. Maybe I have gone into denial about the truth as I saw it and want to gloss it over so J and I can go on with life as usual.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Relationship Patterns

After much soul searching and unnecessary heartache, I think I might have finally come to an understanding of the pattern and modus operandi (MO) of my past relationships. I have a stadium-sized ego cushioned for comfort with several layers of pride. With that combination, I had for the longest time imagined my life's purpose was to take on a man who looked and acted like a train wreck and "decorate" his life as beautifully as possible.

No lesser challenge was good enough for my larger than life sense of my own greatness. I had no interest in any man who wasn't desperately in need of being saved. I am sure there is an official nomenclature for my condition, but whatever it is, sure as hell it is painful to live with.

Like they say, if you want something bad enough in life, you end up getting it. I was blessed with the kind of man I sought not once, not twice, but thrice. That is what it took for me to understand the fatal flaw of my ways. One marriage and two significant relationships repeated the same pattern. The first two times I at least had the discernment to know I was dealing with men who were completely out of the "normal" range in all respects, most notably with regard to raw intelligence.

They managed to awe me with their brains to the point where the train wreck started to look like a thing of unsurpassable beauty. So, there I was, head over heels in "love" or more accurately in high alert mode to stage the rescue that would free these very deserving men from their constricting circumstances and propel them to the heights they belonged.

R was, in my mind, C-level executive material languishing in a low end IT drone job that insulted his intelligence every day. It was my mission to set him on the right career track so he could make CXO before age 35. I set to work in sober earnest while our marriage was still in honeymoon mode. It's a whole different thing that R wanted that to be the permanent state of our marriage - "no staleness, no boredom, no sameness" was his mantra, but I digress.

I am glad to report he is almost there, just a year behind schedule with every chance of making the grade in short order. I am vain enough to imagine he could not meet the before-35 timeline because we are no longer together.

Malhar, my first significant relationship after calling it quits with R, was doing almost as well as he should have career-wise, so there was not much I could bring to the table. What a crushing disappointment that had been! Being that he managed mergers, acquisitions, and such other arcana for a living, there was precious little I knew that could further the cause of his career. There was, however, a role for me in his life. He was a rescue-worthy project beyond the shadow of a doubt.

His two adorable little boys needed a mother just like me because their own mom was too self-absorbed to be there for them. Apparently it would be love at first sight between the pint sized brats and me, and J — with whom I had been pregnant — would fit right in the mix. In a matter of weeks Malhar had proselytized me into accepting the blended family as the ultimate Utopia. Up until then, my position had been "It will be a cold day in hell before I get into his kids', my kids', and their kids' situation." Apparently, with Malhar coming into my life, hell had frozen over quite nicely.

Then there was "the great Indian novel" he was working on. It had been a work in progress for a few years at the time of our meeting. His passion for it was akin to mine for J when I was pregnant with her. I could easily relate. I knew at once I could help push it out the door and, God willing, with cryptic a dedication like "To the beautiful seashell that washed up to my shore one summer" on its flyleaf, a Pulitzer might have "washed up" as well. I thought he had what it took. In other words, I was suffering from fantastic illusions of grandeur.

We parted ways too soon for any of that to happen, but he persisted with me via anonymous phone calls for a whole year after he was officially with someone else. Our breakup had been nothing short of hysterical, as can be imagined -what with my life's grand design being taken away and handed over to someone who was my exact opposite in every way. How did that make any sense?

What did that giggly cow in Wal-Mart couture know about uses of iambic pentameter in expressing feelings of love and loss? In hindsight there was significant jealousy in pronouncing that verdict upon the over-endowed, but bland-looking new woman in Malhar's life. Here was a man who had shown impeccable taste in marrying who he had the first time around. She was smart, charming, stylish, sophisticated and had versatile interests. The fact that she was doing great professionally was only an interesting side note. Did I mention she was quite a looker? The man had everything going for him.

Post-ex, he may have done better than the Wal-Mart couture-cow he chose to be his lawfully wedded second wife. In his defense, Malhar would say as he often did to me "You are like Jolt cola. I want to be with a woman around whom I can relax and just be myself. I don't always need cerebral stimulation and I don't want to keep up with someone like you and worry about what might happen if you got bored."

With cow firmly tethered to the post, he threw little baits my way to see if I would bite. After a year he gave up and just settled into what I imagine must be perfectly bovine domesticity. I imagine a placid couple sitting on the couch, chewing cud and watching Hindi soaps on cable TV. While I can't see myself in that frame of reference, neither can I picture Malhar in it - he just wasn't the type. I felt a great sense of solidarity with his ex who, like me, lacked the bovinity Malhar sought in a wife.

The third time was not nearly as dramatic as R or Malhar. H was smart enough, but not nearly in the same league as R or even Malhar. He looked as train-wrecked as a man might look like if, after five years of marriage, the wife, on the pretext of going home for a vacation, just flies the coop. Other than that he was reasonably, if not somewhat dangerously normal; but then what I find normal would intimidate most people.

A couple of months into this "vacation" that was happening back in India, H tries to find out when she may be returning home, to which she responds "Never." Any other woman in my shoes would have panicked enough by this point to consider running as fast and as far away from H as she could. Not I. I soldiered along, knowing in my bones that I had landed myself a mega-project truly worthy of my greatness.

So what if R and Malhar could not recognize my potential? Our friend H would surely not miss the obvious when it stared at him in the face. I liked the quirky sense of humor, the passion for all things dangerous, the vigorous work ethic, and not so much the fact that dinner was often two slices of bread with "Kannadiga gun powder" for spread accompanied by Kamchatka Vodka or Rum and Pepsi.

Just for the record, I am a health freak. One major bone of contention between R and me was our dietary preferences. For those who ask "Then why?" I would answer that a worthy cause is worth the supreme sacrifice. With me in his life, H would magically be weaned off his drinks and gravitate of his own free will to Odwalla carrot juice. I just know these things to be self-evident despite all evidences to the contrary from past experience.

There was so much work ahead that I could not wait to get started. H needed to be rescued from the ghosts of the past and the closet full of his wife's clothes that he held on to for close to two years, saying all the time, "The purge will need to happen." That was aptly dramatic for me.

It came as no surprise that he dated this woman long distance when they were both in India and his phone bill ran to forty-five thousand Indian rupees in a month. On their first date, he drove 20 kilometers to the nearest pharmacy to buy condoms because she said she had gotten in the mood. I was as impressed as I needed to be. It did not bother me that the same woman lost interest in sex even before the ink on the marriage certificate had dried.

This was clearly a go as far as I was concerned. Before I forget to mention, his divorce was not yet granted when we met. It was in the works in India, pending the seal of the judge on papers they had signed and the Domestic Violence laws had just been passed. This was getting to be more challenging by the minute and all the way up my alley. Neither R nor Malhar had come with some many challenges. Every once in a while H would send me links to articles on mental health and its relationship to marital happiness. I would read them out of curiosity and wonder about their relevance to our situation. Surely, he did not think my mental health was lacking.

According to him, his wife suffered from chronic depression and he did everything in his power to help her. Even after she locked herself up in their bedroom with the biggest kitchen knife threatening to kill herself, he persisted with her. Loyalty and grace under pressure scores big with me, ergo H was a keeper without a question.

Breaking up with H was a long, drawn-out and tedious process not in the least because I was loath to see a lifetime opportunity of being a man's savior go to hell in a hand basket. To his credit he maintained dignified silence to the end, but I felt drained emotionally because he just was not letting go in the mind. While we had reached logical closure in the relationship, it had to end in a symbolic way for us to be fully freed of each other.

Thanks to H, I have come to realize that a man suggesting we could meet inside Victoria's Secret, while quaint and quirky, may not necessarily signal a chance of life-long marital bliss. Offering to buy me a toy of choice, so that waiting for "the one" was not so onerous, may be more than a friendly gesture of concern and perhaps needs to be viewed as such.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 8

This is Part Eight of a Nine Part Series

I was not sure how to reach out to J that evening. In the end we both had to come out of this unscathed - that was imperative for our happiness and well being. It would just not do for J to think that she had caused trouble for me or worse it was safer to lie to Mommy than invoke her wrath. I held J close until she was done crying.

"J, have I ever been mad at you for doing anything wrong ?" I asked her.

She said "No"

"Are you scared of Mommy when she does get mad at you for something ?" I asked.

"I know Mommy still loves me" she said. I was glad to hear the confidence in her voice.

"That's what I want you to remember always. No matter how mad I am at you, I never stop loving you. No matter what anyone tells me about you, I will always believe what you tell me. I want you to know that there is no good or bad about anything you do. You are not supposed to know the difference. All you need to do is to tell Mommy. As long as you and I don't keep secrets from each other nothing and no one in the world can hurt us. Do you understand, J ?" I asked.

"Yes, Mommy" she replied.

"No one in the world will understand you as well as I do. Unless you tell me clearly what you are thinking, what makes you happy and what makes you sad, I won't be able to help you when you are in trouble. Do you promise to always tell me everything ? " I asked holding her close.

"Even if it is not important ?" she asks

"Yes. Even if it is not important. It may not be important for you but I still want to know. Did I tell you about how God gives each one of us a job to do in life ?" I asked

"Yes" J said.

" What is my job ? Do you remember ?" I asked.

" To help me be a good little girl" J replied

"And to help you, I need to understand you completely. I can never have an outsider tell me anything about you that I don't already know. Sometimes, little people like you don't know enough words to express difficult thoughts. You may be thinking something that is too difficult for you to tell me. When you don't use enough words to describe something, Mommy does not understand correctly and does the wrong thing. Does that mean you are lying ?" I asked

"No" J replied after some thought.

"For instance you are wearing a red sweater today. The pillow has a red cover and the coffee mug has a pattern of red flowers. If I were to tell you 'J get me the red' would you understand what I am talking about ?" I asked.

"No" she replied after giving the scenario some consideration.

"In the same way, something happened in school on Tuesday that made you say that Mrs H forgot all about the poster that day when in fact you did get your turn. Because you did not explain to me everything that went through your mind, I was not able to understand." I said

"But sometimes, it takes a lot of time to say everything." J said

"Have I ever told you that I don't have time to listen to everything you have to say no matter how long it takes ?" I asked her.

"No" she admitted.

"Unless you try to give words to your thoughts you will not learn how to do it. As you learn bigger and more difficult words to express your feelings it will become easier and take lesser time. You have to try saying what you are thinking and feeling using the words you know now. Mommy can help you out when you get stuck. " I said wondering if I was even being able to get my message across.

She listened to me silently.

"The other thing to remember is, no one in the world should be able to tell you what you should or should not tell Mommy. It could be your grandparents, your friends, Mommy's friends, your teachers or even the principal. If anyone of them were to come up to you and tell you 'J, this is our secret and you should never tell your Mommy about it' would you listen to them ?" I asked her.

"No I would not" she replied with conviction.

"If something happens and they want you to tell it differently to your Mommy would you listen to them ?" I asked. She said no once again.

It had been a long day and a longer evening. I knew I was going to have to revisit these lessons with her many times until speaking her mind in front of me became second nature, until I was sure she had the emotional strength to resist forces that wanted her behave in ways contrary to it. I had not felt so exhausted in years. Tomorrow was going to be another busy day at work and I would have to make the 4:00 appointment with Mrs H. I dreaded it all.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Remembering Meenakshi


Reading about
Reborn Dolls reminded me of Suresh, my first boss and his wife Veena. In our team of six, the rest of us were fresh out of engineering school and single. He had been married about twelve years. Sometimes during our coffee breaks he would talk about Meenakshi, his five year old daughter. We could tell he doted on her. Veena was more the disciplinarian and did not approve of how her husband spoilt their daughter.

One Diwali, Suresh invited all of us to his house. The day before he called me to his office. "I have a favor to ask of you guys" he said. I waited for him to continue "When you come to our place tomorrow, please make sure you don't mention Meenakshi in front of Veena" he added after a pause. Something told me that it would be inappropriate to ask why not. I assured him I would tell the others. He thanked me profusely for my understanding.

We arrived just before noon. Suresh and Veena were at the door to greet us. Their home was picture perfect just like the couple was. The harmony between them was palpable. Veena had cooked an elaborate lunch and insisted that we take the leftovers home. She was bright, cheerful and seemed to enjoy our company. She showed us around the house and I noticed that there was no sign of their daughter.

The next day at work, Suresh wanted to talk with me again. I was more anxious this time. He gave me a beautiful notebook with "From Meenakshi with Love" written on the flyleaf. "This is from Veena and me" he said handing it to me. I could tell something was wrong.

"Meenakshi is the child of our imagination. Veena and I can never have children but always longed to have one. Around five years ago after we had exhausted all medical options, I decided to give Veena an imaginary child. We named her Meenakshi. I learnt to imitate a baby's voice so Veena could hear a child calling her 'Mother'. I become Meenakshi for Veena".

"Over time, she has become as real to us a real child. To us she exists, she goes to school, has friends - has a life just like other children of her age. I think sometimes we forget that Meenakshi does not exist. As long as we are alone, we feel like she is with us. Outsiders would not understand. I worry that they may say something that will hurt Veena or worse wake her up from this dream that she is living in. It would shatter her to not have Meenakshi" He paused when he noticed I was crying.

"Please don't cry. I should have never told you all this. I just thought you would understand. It is very hard to share this. I think it was very selfish of me to burden you. I do apologize" he said. I sat there in his office until I was able to collect myself.

Life went on as before. Suresh prodded us mercilessly until we were able to write C code to his exacting and elegant standards. He was a perfectionist. Even as we griped about having to rewrite the same function twenty times and test it to death, we knew we were fortunate to have mentor like him.
He wrote compliers and relational database systems for recreation because the day job did nothing to challenge him.

Meenakshi returned to our coffee breaks. She went to stay with her grandparents for the summer vacation, moved to the next grade, got a little white puppy as a birthday gift, Veena thought it was extravagant of Suresh to buy her a six hundred rupee outfit for her sixth birthday. Despite knowing the truth, Meenakshi was a very real person to me. I cherished the gift she had given to me.

I saw Suresh last over ten years ago when I got a new job. I sensed my own desperation for motherhood within months of marriage and found myself thinking about Veena. What if like her, I could never be a mom ? It was irrational, illogical fear but not the less real for that. To this day, whenever I meet a childless couple I remember Suresh and Veena and pray that God gifted them a real Meenakshi that they so longed for.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 7

This is Part Seven of a Nine Part Series

Some firsts in a child's life are black letter rather than red letter days. Wednesday at around 5:30 in the evening I had learnt that J had lied to me and the best I know this was the first time she had done so.

To imagine that so many of us adults had gone into a tizzy over what we thought was discrimination and subtle racism over a child' s lie was indescribably deflating not to mention humiliating. I could not imagine how I would face Mrs H at our meeting the next day. I had acted exactly like the minority stereotype who can't get over their ethnic identity and sense they are treated differently all the time and often without good reason.

It was time to start questioning J and piece this puzzle together. After an hour of questions and lot of tears a cohesive story started to emerge. J still stood by her version of events on Monday - i.e. she had started so late that Mrs H had to rush through the poster quickly. She had promised that J would get her turn on Tuesday.

"So what happened on Tuesday ? Mrs H tells me that you got your turn but you told me she forgot all about it" I asked not without some anger and reproach in my voice.

This was met with sullen silence and then lots of tears. "Mrs H said telling the truth can't hurt you but fibbing can" was all she managed to say

"When did Mrs H say that ?" I asked

"When she read your note. She called me to her desk and asked me if I remembered talking about the poster on Tuesday" J said

"So what did you tell her ?" I asked

"I did not remember. I said nothing" J replied

"What did Mrs H do after that ?" I asked. This was getting curiouser by the minute

"She turned around and asked the class if they remembered about the poster. And they said that they did" J said.

"And what happened after that ?" I asked her

"Mrs H asked me if I remembered and I said yes. That's when she said that thing about fibbing. What does fibbing mean, Mommy ?" J asked

I told her and she looked very upset. Shortly after she and I had this conversation I made half a dozen phone calls to poll my friends on the latest twist in the drama. The common theme was that the teacher was an authority figure who had acted in an unethical manner by discussing an adult matter with a child and front of her class. It was highly likely that she had been coerced into mis-remembering the events.

It was a dangerous precedent for a teacher to mess with a child's mind and take advantage of her powerful position. Now in addition to racial discrimination there was the issue of unethical and inappropriate behavior. Almost everyone suggested that I should not discuss the matter any further with J and make her feel like she caused a whole lot of trouble. The teacher had done the child enough disservice to begin with and I should try to salvage what I could of a very bad mess.

For my part I was greatly concerned that J's version of events on Tuesday had changed ever since the teacher had told her about the consequences of truth and fibbing. She was no longer sure which was which. She reiterated that she had not had a chance to read her book that day and that she was not lying. "Mommy, did I cause a lot of trouble ?" she asked me in a small voice. I held her close and assured her that she had not. We had a long discussion about truth and the power of words and expression to convey different meanings when in fact the same thing was being said.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mailbox Glut

Anyone who has had their mailbox flushed clean for not having logged in for 30 days will be able to relate to this woman's frustration with Lycos and giving her attitude to add insult to injury. The story has been Slashdotted and greatly commented upon needless to say. A lot of people believe that she was naive, foolish and in as such, her case was ab initio void.

When Hotmail introduced us all to the brave new world of free web email, it was like been ushered into an all you can eat buffet and told "Oh, by the way. This is all free". To make up for the storage limits per email account, people created half a dozen different ones and it was just too hard to remember to login to every one of them at the right frequency.

Then one day you open a long forgotten mailbox and voila it was completely empty. The inactivation policy had kicked in and nothing short of paying $20 to reactive it would restore your old mails. Should the consumer blame providers of all you can eat free buffets for baiting and switching on them ? Or should we chastise ourselves for our insatiable gluttony ?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 6

This is Part Six of a Nine Part Series

"Did your friends like the Strega Nona story ?" I asked as brightly as I could manage. "I did not get a chance to share my book today. It is still lying in my cubby" J replied sadly. "Did Mrs H tell you why you could not share you book ?" I asked trying to stay calm in the face of the rising tidal wave of anger and indignation.

"No" she said. "Did she see my note ?" I asked. "Yes. She sent a note back for you" J replied. I had to stop myself from thinking aloud "What a perfectly passive-aggressive bitch !" I told J that I was sorry about how her Stardom week was turning out and that Mommy would do whatever it took to make it right. I would be meeting with Mrs H to talk about it."Okay, Mommy" she said wanly. It hurt me that she did not sound hopeful. I am more used to being viewed as Supermom who can make the impossible happen effortlessly. J was not so sure.

My friends got notified on the latest on J's week soon after I got off the phone with her. There was more incredulity and anger in how this news was received. All of this negativity was not helping me in any way. I wanted to hear one voice of reason to act as counterpoint to my emotional meltdown. By now I was feeling physically ill from being stressed over this situation for three days in a row.

I wanted someone to tell me that I was making a huge big deal over nothing. Were these people really my friends I wondered ? Why did no one contradict me ? Why did they all assume the same thing ? Had they always agreed with my views I would not have been surprised but here was a group that most often told me the error of my ways and did not hesitate to point out that I was exercising my right to be a moron.

What was wrong with them now ? Was it politically incorrect to not lend credence to a minority's sense of being discriminated against however flimsy their grounds ? Would these people with their own kind talk about me as this frantic Indian woman who has a chip on her shoulder and a supersensitive racism radar that picks up things that don't even exist ? And yet they would not tell me as such to my face ?

I wondered about the folks who were minorities themselves. From what I have seen of them, they don't come across as being paranoid about discrimination. They have been in this country long enough to have assimilated, to feel like they are part of the fabric and not a late transplant trying to fit in like a piece of patchwork that blends with the theme but is still completely different. What was I missing here ?

I had been given a 4:00 p.m appointment to meet Mrs H the next day. The worst was far from over I realized when I read the note that she had written in response to mine :

Dear Ms (My Last Name)

I was very surprised to get your letter concerning J's project. She had a chance to talk about it on Monday and then in more detail on Tuesday. The class was very appreciative of it and we asked her questions about the pictures of her family members , the religious ceremony and the places she has lived in. I am not sure what she has communicated to you. I would suggest that you ask her about it once again to understand what really happened.

Sincerely,
Mrs H.

For the first time since the beginning of school year Mrs H had addressed me as Ms (My Last Name) instead of her habitual Mrs (J's Last Name) despite knowing I am divorced. I always took the trouble of writing my full name and she always ignored it. I found it very offensive but let it pass thinking it may just be a married woman trying to tell me that I had lost out from turning single. She seemed to take pleasure in reminding me that I was married once.

Insecurity leads people to act weirdly and as long as that does not affect my helpless child, I don't let it bother me. In some ways I found it amusing how she chose to refer to me as Mrs (J's Last Name) when in fact I had never used that nomenclature even when I was married. My ex would have doubtless been pleased to see how hard it was being for me to disjoin my identity from his so many years after the effect.

In not so many words, Mrs. H was telling me that my child had willfully lied to me and this was not something I was even remotely prepared for. I had a sinking feeling overcome me as I read and re-read her note to make sure I had understood what she was saying correctly.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Podcasting Grievances

This gives new meaning to airing your grievances. Instead of writing to the newspaper editor, people can now call, complain and be podcasted for everyone to hear. Back in the day some people made writing letters to the editor an art form. The new generation of malcontents can take their show on air and thanks to technology bring much innovation to bear on pain old whining and griping.

Newspapers for their part are anxious to become livelier. Some are getting creative with incoming mail, and
making blog posts out of it. Increasingly, it may become difficult to merely broadcast news, views and opinion without active involvement and particpation of the readership.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 5

This is Part Five of a Nine Part Series

All Wednesday I was a bunch of twisted nerves. Thankfully two important meetings got cancelled. I was not prepared for either and thanked God for getting me off the hook. The note had been sent to Mrs. H and now I had to wait on her response. Time flows with a dreamlike slowness when you are waiting for a denouement that you fear may be unpleasant. I thought about her reaction to my note and what her response might be. If only there was any way I could fast forward to the time I was at home in the evening with J and know that answer right now.

In the meanwhile, my friends had tapped into their individual networks to help me formulate my strategy as far as meeting with the teacher. They had given me ideas on opening lines, meeting agenda and closing notes. It ranged all the way from bitter, caustic and sarcastic to completely cold, professional and business like. There was a lot overwrought, hyper-anxious, over-protective mother between the two extremes. I felt grateful for these people who had come into my life within the last four or five years and now formed the warm, comforting envelope of friendship and support I needed to raise a child alone in a foreign country.

Some were immigrants like me even if not nearly as new. Others were able to trace their roots back to the Mayflower. Their families had heard my story and were rooting for me like people generally root for the victim and the underdog. In a way this whole episode was like a mirror being held up to middle America and the red state stereotype.

K, a white co-worker who grew up in New York said "This is clearly a case of a redneck teacher person who needs to be taught a lesson. When I told my husband his jaw dropped to the floor. My mom could not believe this stuff happens in this day and age." There was a lot of guilt, angst and anger in how the reflection was being viewed depending on the vantage point of the viewer. In the last three days I had been reminded that I lived in a place so backward that I should have seen this coming sooner than later. The same people were quick to point out that living in a bigger city was no guarantee that racism would not exist. It might afford me the strength that comes from numbers - it would not be one J against all of them.

Wednesday was the day J was supposed to share her favorite book with her class. As with the toy she had struggled to find the happy medium between a very Christmassy crowd pleaser and her "real" favorite book which currently happens to an illustrated Life of The Buddha. After much deliberation she picked a book that she had actually enjoyed a lot a year ago - Strega Nona. I knew better than to ask why The Buddha book would not be going to school.

For a month now, I have been bellyaching to my boss about one of our vendors and how they need to meet with our team in person so we can reach a common understanding of what ails our interface with them. My wish was granted on Wednesday.Their team had come to town from Chicago. I had K run my meeting because I was too disoriented to do so myself.

At around 2:30, while telling their "VP of Operations" that we preferred to identify all their system and process gaps at our end and drive the time lines for fixing them, my mind had started to wander dangerously. I was thinking how little people in little companies were given grandiose epithets to compensate for all manner of littleness and how by extension Mrs H could call herself COO of Kindergarten Room 3 - maybe she thought of herself in those terms. I was glad my boss had a conflict and could not be here for this meeting because he would have noticed how distracted I was. I don't recall any other time when I had been so distracted at work and all this over a kindergarten project.

Glancing at my watch, I knew J would be back home now and I wanted desperately to talk with her. In the background over the chaos in my head, I could hear the VP voice his many concerns about the approach I was suggesting but thankfully K and others in the room backed me strongly having gone through much greater pain for far longer than I have. He caved in by 3:00 and I could get out of the conference room to make the call home. The sound of "Yes, Mommy ?" when J answered the phone filled me with a rush of cold fear.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Vision And Execution

I was the client CIO all hand meeting a few days ago. The man's reputation precedes him and the reasons became self evident within minutes of him starting his presentation. The two hundred something in attendance that represented almost everyone in his food chain was spellbound. The one thing he reiterated was the importance of disseminating and living the vision at all levels of the organization, every single day. When faced with conflicting priorities every one of us should ask ourselves which of them is the best aligned with the vision statement and let the answer determine what our top priority should be.

In the majority of the Fortune 500 types I have consulted for, the people who craft the organizational vision have the greatest ideas. Unfortunately, the nitty-gritty of implementing the operating details of that vision falls to their direct and indirect reports. The greater the number of layers, the more significant are the transmission losses. The vision erodes in successive translations and what little is left over is nuked in its presumed execution. In the trenches fire drills continue unabated, the focus is on the wrong things for the wrong reasons. The vision statement is taped on the whiteboard along with pictures from the offsite fun event.

From what I have seen, boutique consulting and product development shops or startups operating from basements fare a lot better in their ability to live and act their corporate vision. It must have to do with degrees of separation and between C level management and the rank and file worker bees.

The ET interview with Murthy and Premji offers an amazing insight into the minds of the two visionaries who gave Indian IT industry its global footprint. Back in the day when I graduated from engineering school, landing a job in Infosys had a certain cachet due to a demanding job interview process that ensured they recruited the best talent that was out there. Wipro was a lot easier and therefore lacked in status.

When someone introduced themselves as in Infosysian, they commanded respect instantly. I must have been stuck in the 90s time warp in having held on to my antiquated notions about the typical Infosysian. A lot must have changed in the past decade because I never see that kind of quality in their offshore resources or maybe they save the scarce best for their top three clients of whose organizations I have never been a part.

Having a great vision and strategy is all good but having folks in the trenches floundering from cluelessness about what that vision means for them and being unable further the cause of the brand is akin to having termites eating at the foundation even as the edifice grows grander. The good news for the likes of Infosys and Wipro is that a lot of their clients don't have the ability to quantify their dissatisfaction with the vendor engagement. The metrics simply do not exist. Qualitative discontent is always easy to soothe over with generous doses of fluff.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 4

This is Part Four of a Nine Part Series

I was concerned about my note to Mrs. H sounding like the hysterical ranting of a over protective mother quick to jump to wanton conclusions. I realized how impossible it was to stay dispassionate and objective when you know your child has been hurt for no reason or atleast have reason to think that has been the case. I sent my note to a few people to proof read and got different feedback.

D is half Puerto Rican and half Dutch married to an African American. She has no kids of her own but is in active participant in the life of several in her extended family. She also serves as a mentor to an inner-city teenager. She modified the letter to the point that it longer bore any traces of an aggrieved, anguished mother. It was steeped in businesses-ese such as "I would like to work with you to establish a decorum for exchange of information between the staff and teachers of X Elementary and myself" She made a few phone calls to other friends to solicit their opinion on what my next steps should be.

A is white, a New England native who has been in relationships with men of diverse ethnicities but is not married. Twenty five years of living in California has given her an lasting love and understanding for cultures other than her own. She was incensed at what had happened and thought my note needed no edits. "You should leave work this minute and go to her school to meet with the principal. This is extremely serious and I would not take it casually. J is at a very impressionable age and incidents like this can cause lasting damage" she said. As much as I appreciated her concern, I realized she loves J too much to be able to view this whole situation with the clarity that I was missing. She was probably being just as hysterical as I was.

L is Jamaican and two kids going to elementary school. Unlike me she lives in a racially diverse neighborhood. She expressed shock and indignation and volunteered immediately to come with me to school to give the teacher a piece of her mind. According to L, my letter was worded far too mildly. If I ever wanted to stand up for my child and protect her from prejudice, I would have to learn not to mince words. "Your tax dollars go towards paying that teacher her salary. She has an obligation to do the right thing by you and your child or risk losing her teacher's license". To L, J was "the poor little baby" who had been caused grievous harm by the teacher.

R is of Indian descent settled in South Africa for three generations. He is a relatively new immigrant to the US and has two boys going to middle school and high school. He did not have much to say about the note. "I have lived in apartheid and know what it feels like to be discriminated against. My boys are a lot tougher than J is and they would have brushed something like this off. But your child is so much younger than them. And that would be your best case scenario" He said that racial discrimination in schools was fact of life in this country that I should get used to.

More often than not it would be done so subtly that the parents could not bring any substantiated charges against the school or the teacher. The child would be able to feel it , sense it and would be hurt just as had happened with J. As a parent I would not want to exacerbate the issue. It was important for me to make the teacher aware of my displeasure but without antagonizing her.

It would not bode well for J for me to make big deal out of this and get the teacher into trouble. "The teachers are a fraternity. If something bad happens to this one because of you, J will pay for it no matter which class or grade she is in. They will try to patronize her so you don't come and cause trouble for them. And that would be your best case scenario" He thought that I should be prepared to change neighborhood so J got access to more ethnically diverse schools.

The final words of advice came from a WASP friend, Jon. He asked me "What is the teacher's race ?" I replied "British, Caucasian". "Well, that explains a lot. You know as well as I do that there is no love lost between the Brits and Indians". I was not sure that I did but I let him continue. He said that if I wanted to wage war over this I should be able to formulate two sets of plans. One, what my next steps would be if complaining to the teacher and principal did not result in satisfactory outcome.

Would I be ready to spend the time and money to sue the school ? Two, how would I retreat safely if I lost the battle. In essence, he did not recommend that I got into this with a seat of the pants strategy or play it by the ear. His final words of wisdom were "Prejudice against a child does not end by teaching the child to defend herself against it. It takes for the minority parent to act with confidence and to show the prejudiced adult their place. That is what it takes to end prejudice.You cannot ignore this"

What was interesting about all of these discussions with such a diverse bunch of folks was that "racial discrimination" was a foregone conclusion. Knowing the lack of ethnic diversity in my town and specially in J's school district no other possibility seemed to occur to anyone.

I will admit that I feared that was the case and it had directly contributed to the intensity of my reaction but I was very surprised that everyone else arrived at the same conclusion independently. It was all about J being the one kid of color in an all white classroom being treated differently by a prejudiced white teacher.

Even as my friends were outraged at what they thought was discrimination, I had to ask myself why I thought I deserved better or different as an immigrant to a country I came to of my own free will. What gave me the right to expect that the locals would accept my child as one of their own simply because she like their children was born in this country ? She did not look anything like them and came from a culture they were completely unfamiliar with.

At any rate, I would have found it much more comforting if there was at least some people in the mix who thought I was reading too much into this incident. The teeming diversity of my sounding board only echoed my own fears and that was as scary as it was concerning.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dating Consultancy

I don't have the resume that it takes to land a dating expert position but the pay is enticing enough to consider a change of profession. The job description does not sound half bad either

I am a dating consultant, President of Rapid Dating and the author of Love Mechanics. I do personal dating consulting and give dating ideas and advice for women and men; including makeover services, wardrobe tune-ups and love nest tune-ups. I will tune up people’s homes and create love environments. Guys often think, “Once I meet a girl, I’ll fix up my place,” but it’s actually the reverse. He needs to fix up his home first! I take people shopping for a new wardrobe. I create love scripts for people in different dating situations; for people who don’t know what to say.


I have in my time given dating advice to both men and women to their eventual benefit. Wardrobe and make-up wisdom comes to me naturally though I hesitate to dispense it lest it offends the recipient.

Likewise for home interiors though I must admit that
boudoir decor is hardly my forte and I know close to nothing about what toys are green and hip these days. But that is nothing a little bit of research (aka Googling) cannot remediate. Finally, like hairdressing and landscaping this is a line of work that cannot get outsourced.

I always knew what I do for a living is not really "me" but now I think I might have found my true calling. I wonder if I should start with buying banner space on the desi dating and matri sites. I might even throw in remote telepromting from the dating consultant's "situation room" instead of a static "love script" that cannot be customized to meet real time needs.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 3


This is Part Three of a Nine Part Series


My Tuesdays are inevitably busy. I have inherited a lot chaos from a mismanaged and misdirected program and until we get our house in some semblance of order the fires will never be fully doused. Between my meetings, I found myself worrying about J and how her day was going at school. While J is always on my mind when I am at work , I rarely if ever worry about her. I had told her that morning when I saw her off at the bus stop to remind Mrs. H about the poster assuming that it might not be as big of a deal to the teacher as it was for her.

I blamed myself for going a little over the top on her very first kindergarten project. Maybe I should have left her alone with construction paper, marker pens, glue and some pictures and all this would have not happened. In my infinite foolishness I had ascribed to that silly little poster more significance than it merited and the child was suffering its consequences. She expected to make a splash and was not getting her opportunity.

I could not wait to get home and chat with J about her day. A lot of mails were going unanswered, I was only physically present at the meetings and none of my tasks for the day were even half way complete. All I could think of is getting back home and meeting J. I was shocked to hear J say "Mrs. H forgot about the poster today". I asked her if she had reminded her and she said she had not. I figured she did not feel comfortable about doing that.

For some reason my immediate reaction was one of absolute infuriation. How dare she hurt a child's feelings ? How dare she willfully disappoint her ? What is the point of publishing a schedule a week in advance when it will not be followed ? What kind of example did she expect to set when she was incapable of sticking to a schedule herself ? I wrote her the following note and asked J to give it to her next morning :

Dear Mrs. H,

J came home extremely disappointed the past two days that she did not have a chance to talk about the poster to her class. She helped me all weekend to make this and had been greatly looking forward to the opportunity. From our last meeting with the guidance counselor, I took away that I was supposed to provide J opportunities for non-academic enrichment and I thought this was a perfect vehicle to do so.

It will become impossible for me to motivate her to work on her assignments and projects going forward if she does not get a chance to share what she put in so much work to help create. Please advise if there is a discipline or other issue that I need to be aware of. As it stands, she is confused at what happened and seems to view this as a punishment for reasons that she is unaware of. I am concerned if that is the case and would like to help remediate the problem.

Please schedule time for us to meet at the PT conference this week. I had not asked for an appointment as you had indicated earlier this was not necessary.

Thanks,
My Full Name
(J's Mother)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Love Bombed

But for Kottke, I would have never realized that my abiding dislike for Valentine's Day comes from having been a victim of love bombing. My ex was big on pomp and circumstance when it came to demonstrating his feelings even if the sincerity was suspect. There was embarrassing amounts of PDA, surprise flowers on the way back from work, liqueur filled chocolate, perfume - the works. I have even had love poetry read to me on the phone from work. And all this for no special reason or occasion. He was infatuated with the idea of being in love while being entirely incapable of loving anyone but himself.

Come Valentine's Day, I would be carpet bombed by the many tokens of affection with mood music playing for ambience. Another woman might have found in him the Prince Charming of her dreams come to life and I found it suffocating. It felt a lot like drowning in a tub of Jaipur mixed with high fructose corn syrup.

Back in the day, I used to wonder if there was something inherently flawed about me - maybe I missed the essential romantic gene that most normal people have. R for his part would be astounded that I chose to discuss the growing pile of trash in the kitchen that made the whole house smell, the lack of fiscal discipline in our lives and his efforts at stalling parenthood even as Louis Armstrong played against a background of candles and a dozen red roses. I was supposed to let go and enjoy the moment.

Years later, I have thought about the comparative merits of our priorities in marriage. Whereas, R loved playing house and being in romantic love , what I sought was a real home and love that was earthly and tangible. For me the yellow tulips were a reminder of the long argument that started as soon as he walked in the door with them and asked me "Did you call home today ?" meaning "Did you do your duty by me and my family by spending at least half an hour talking to my mother in India ?" Needless to say, the expectation was I would share every last detail of our life with her and have her provide commentary all at only 30 cents a minute.

It made me wonder if the flowers were a bribe for me to do his bidding. It also stood for the comfort objects he wanted me to have in lieu of opening his heart and soul to me. When something is fundamentally flawed in a relationship, the trappings of love and affection cannot compensate for that which is missing. Instead it serves as a cruel, hurting reminder of the emptiness that nothing material can fill. Thanks to R, I still feel nauseous around Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 2


This is Part Two of a Nine part series


Swami Chinmayanad once said "Disappointment occurs to those who make an appointment with the future". I have often remembered this quote when the future I had wanted shaped up a lot contrary to my desire or dreams. Had J been any older or wiser, I might have said that to her when I called home Monday afternoon after she had returned from school to check how things went with the poster. "Mommy, I started very late and then the bell for the school bus rang. Mrs. H showed it to the class herself. She said I can have my turn tomorrow". J said sadly.


I could sense deep hurt and disappointment in her voice. I tried to tell her that it was no big deal and she could talk about it on Tuesday. J insisted that all the other kids who had their turn to be the star always started to present their poster right after naptime but she was not allowed to do so until much later. I was surprised that she could even discern the difference in timing. "They start around 1:00 but Mrs. H let me start after 2:00". I did not want to jump to rash conclusions about the teacher's intent and motivation for doing what she had done. I was willing to believe that J had high hopes and was feeling let down at the way things had not gone the way she might have wanted.

She was upset that Mrs. H stole her thunder. I came home a little earlier than usual and tried to distract her from the poster incident. In a few hours she was back to being her usual cheerful self trying to decide between Horsey and Teddy to take to class the next day. Tuesday was the day for the star of the week to share their favorite toy. Horsey won in the end. I know J has a personality for the outside world. Neither Horsey nor Teddy are her favorites - but they conform to the popular stereotype of a "favorite stuffed animal".

I asked her why she did not want to share "Junie" her old and rather uncool doll and the "true" favorite toy. She said "My friends will not understand". I realized as long as I was able to give her what it took to remain in her true and natural self at home and with me, we would both be fine but it would take constant effort to make sure she did not feel any need to invent a persona for my benefit.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Second Brain

All of us who have a bad memory for faces and names along with an inability to make the correct name to face associations would love the idea of having a surrogate brain take over when the real one fails to do the job.

It's a crazy experiment. But perhaps its craziest aspect is that soon you'll be part of it too--whether you want to be or not. The way Bell sees it, computers and the Internet are now rapidly becoming capable of storing everything you do and see. Hard-drive space has exploded in size, and every day people are recording more and more of their lives: We blog about our thoughts, upload personal pictures to Flickr, save every email on our infinitely expanding Gmail accounts, shoot video on our cell phones, record phone calls straight to our hard drives when we use Skype.

Back in the learning multiplication tables, doing mental math, being a good speller all counted among must haves for a good student. Some or all of these skills may become redundant soon. All of us who use computers on the job don't necessarily know to write compilers or read assembly language code. We get along just fine without those skills.

Mental agility can be achieved in many different ways and recalling multiplication tables from memory may hardly be the best way. Once you have a surrogate brain that you can use seamlessly with your own, a lot of the rote, drone work can be offloaded to it, freeing room in the real one for things more creative and challenging.

On the other hand, the surrogate brain may have an ossifying effect on the real brain. When no longer tasked to do the simplest of things, it may turn incapable of performing sophisticated tasks.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Stardom Week - Part 1

This is Part One of a Nine Part Series

When I checked J's homework folder last Friday, I had no idea I would be setting in motion a chain of events that would by the weekend among other things make me physically ill. There was the weekly report stating the usual "J had a great week" with all parameters for a successful kindergarten week marked "Met or exceeded expectations". There was also a flyer letting me know that it would be J's turn to be the "Kindergarten Star Of The Week" the following week.

A list of activities was outlined from Monday to Thursday. The goal was to give each child in class a chance to shine and be the cynosure of attention for a whole week. I thought it was a wonderful idea and set to work on our assignment for Monday enthusiastically. I was tasked with helping her to make a poster about herself to bring and share with the class. Interestingly enough, J had never mentioned anyone's poster until then.

I had heard about the favorite book and favorite snack scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday of the "Star Week". Probing a little about the poster, I found out that the kids typically had pictures of themselves, family members, pets and toys among other things. Mrs. H had them walk up the front of the class and present it.

After that, she and the class might ask some questions. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to teach J how to make a photo collage and coach her on some basic presentation skills. It may be argued that I acted like an over zealous parent in spending all Sunday afternoon helping her put this poster together. This would be the kind of "non-academic enrichment" that Mrs H and the guidance counselor had said J would benefit from.

We pored through her old albums and found a picture of her with my grandmother who died a couple of months ago. This became the centerpiece of our collage. Around it were other pictures of her early childhood when I had gone back to India, including a couple from her
Annaprashan. We talked about the many places we've lived and traveled in the past five years of my nomadic life.

J's memory has faded in parts but she was excited to glue the images of the couple of dozen cities on her poster amazed that she had actually been to all those places in the past five years of her life. The labors of my imagination and J's hard work resulted in something rather nice. She was pleased with it and told me proudly "No one else in my class had so many things on their poster". That evening, we did a little role play trading Mrs H and J roles so she knew how to present it to the class. We both went to sleep tired but happy looking forward to Monday morning.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Love Or War

I loved thrillers in my teens and so did most of my compadres - we could not get enough of John Le Carre, Robert Ludlum and Helen MacInnes. Many of us girls were also into Mills and Boon romances on the sly.

Our parents generally disapproved of the saccharine romance genre a whole lot more than they did of spy thrillers though we were not entirely sure why. After all the rallying cry during their youth had been "Make love not war".

Maybe they wanted us to stop believing in the myth of Cinderella, get a decent education and a job that gave us financial independence. Since “The Bourne Supremacy” did not interfere with any of those objectives, it must have qualified as acceptable reading.

If only they had known that love of crime fiction is a sign of low self esteem, we may not have had to sneak our Harlequin romances inside school text books and risk the ire of the history teacher if caught. The article does not say anything about the predictability of romance novels or other genres and what that suggests about the self esteem of the reader.

I used to think that generic romance novels are a teenager's escape to the land of fairytales where Prince Charming comes on his silver Ferrari instead of a snow white steed. We know and expect endings to be faithful to the fairytale tradition and any departure is jarring and sure to disappoint the readership.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Uses Of Pop Culture

You understand the uses of popular culture when they decide to name a server Bamm-Bamm instead of lets say Macavity. I would have never got the Flintstones reference but the T.S. Elliot allusion would have made me smile.

So much better if there was another person in the room who also remembered the mystery cat. It makes for a small but meaningful moment of coworker bonding. It takes the edge off a serious discussion around the degrading performance stats of a production server that has been getting the boss undesirable attention from his management.

Cultural reference points change by place and time. You become aware of the flow of both relative to you when you do not understand references to popular icons. You lean on others to help you navigate a varied landscape of pop-culture, understand key landmarks and their significance. When all else fails there is Google and Wikipedia. I think both generation and culture gap will become things of the past at least in terms of awareness. As long as you are connected, you can get caught up.

All you miss is the 15 seconds of impromptu camaraderie when the tech guy says "The jobs on Bamm-Bamm failed three times this week" and everyone else chuckles thinking "Flintstones" instead of making a note to pitch getting Bamm-Bamm decommissioned.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Tracing A Path Home

"Hi Sheila" says a tired and somewhat peeved voice after the sixth ring. "I am not on call today. Steve is. You can't reach him ?" he asks.

"Sean, I am sorry to call you this early on Sunday but I need your help. Can you meet me at Cosi's on Skillman Street in about fifteen ?" Shiela asks anxiously.

Sean sounds fully alert and a little concerned "I'll be over. Are you ok ? What's going on ?" he asks.

"I am fine. A childhood friend sounds like she could be in trouble and I need help for her. Tell you more when we meet. I am on my way there" she replies.

She settles herself a corner table and powers up her laptop. Sean walks in a few minutes later looking dangerously sleep deprived. It had been an insane week at work for all of them but specially for the production support guys. While the worst was probably over, they were not fully out of the woods yet.

"Couldn't whatever this is wait till tomorrow ? I'd have had one night of sleep in a whole week." he groans as he helps himself to a slice of pound cake.

"Its about my friend Vibha. She tried to commit suicide once in her teens. The parents hushed it up but some of her closest friends knew - she told us. I got an email from her out of the blue today. I think she is severely depressed again and needs help. I hope to God I am wrong" Sheila said waiting until he had read the mail.

"It sounds real sad but not particularly suicidal at least to me. Women act weird when they're pregnant." Sean said barely able to suppress a yawn.

"I need you to trace where the mail came from and find an address or phone number on her. I need to talk to her." Shiela said ignoring his dig about pregnant women.

"What's the last name ?" Sean asked sliding the computer over to him.

"I don't know what it is after she got married" Shiela replied.

"Never mind. I'll see what I can find out." he said as he set to work.

He traced the public library and by extension the approximate location of her home. A Google search on Gaurav, her husband's name and the city threw up a bunch of different things. There was a donation to the local Indian temple, a 5K marathon registration, a Craigslist ad to sell an used couch and then finally what they were looking for - the names Vibha and Gaurav in a listing of recent home sales in the area. Gaurav was listed in the phone book as well and with the same address. The search for Vibha was essentially over.

"I've now earned my free latte" Sean laughed. "Hey listen, I'd better head back and try to get some shut eye. I'll see you tomorrow. Good luck about your friend. I hope she is doing well" he said as he walked out tossing the empty coffee cup on his way. Sheila smiled to herself as she texted him a profuse "thank you" message thinking he would probably get to his non-emergency SMS messages sometime next week.

Sitting inside her car in the parking lot, Shiela dialed the number her mouth dry from anxiety. The last thing she wanted was to alarm Vibha but she would have no peace until they had spoken. A voice familiar from long ago answered "Hello ?"

"Vibs, this is Shiela. I'm sorry but I had to call you after getting that email." she said breathlessly.

"God, you actually hunted me down ! Now you know why hate email and all you geek types" Vibha exclaimed in astonishment.

"Are you ok ?" asked Sheila.

"I don't know" she replied.

"What the heck is that supposed to mean ?" Sheila asked.

"Just that I don't know. The two years I have been married, I have been in this frame of mind. I don't know any different. Maybe this is what marriage reduces us to. Be glad that you are still single - you atleast know if you are ok or not. You have a point of reference. When you get married you no longer have one. You have to get out of one, and into another to be able to compare" Vibha replied.

"Are you planning on doing anything stupid ?" Sheila blurted out and chided herself almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth.

"No, I am not getting ready to slash my wrists again if that is what you mean" Vibha said calmly.

"Vibs. I am so sorry. I didn't mean for it to sound that way. I apologize. That was incredibly stupid and insensitive of me" Shiela said awkwardly as she fumbled for a way to continue the conversation.

"No, that's fine. I would ask the same if I were you." Vibha said.

"Would you like to meet ? I can drive down this weekend - its only four hours away from here" Shiela asked.

"I'd love that. I had no idea that we lived that close to each other. That would be just wonderful !" Vibha's sounded genuinely excited.

"Ok then. I'll be over around 7:00 Friday evening. That'll give us plenty of time to catch up. I'll probably leave Sunday around noon. I am so glad we spoke today. I'll let you go now." Shiela said.

"Bye, Shell. Thanks for caring enough to check on me. I'll see you on Friday" Vibha said and she hung up.

Driving back home, she thought about what Vibha said - about how there is no point of reference for marriage. You don't know how the experience may change you and your life until you live the experience. It seemed like a chemical reaction where two elements combined to form a compound completely unlike its components. Vibha and Gaurav formed something together that was unique to their combination. The same Vibha with another man could have resulted in an entirely different outcome - a different frame of mind.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Letters And Email

Besides the loss to scientific history due to letters being supplanted by email correspondence between scientists, future generations may not know the amazing genre of letters exchanged poets, philosophers, artists, writers who wrote to peers, friends and family. They would remain strangers to the human side of genius and celebrity alike.

Before, unlimited email storage became common, most people were forced to purge their mailboxes periodically to make room for new email. Not everyone bothered to save these electronic notes elsewhere. If they lived in today's world there would be no letters from Franz Kafka to Milena, the fifty years of correspondence between Graham Greene and R.K Narayan or letters from Rudyard Kipling to his children

To all of us who have loved reading those letters and many more, years after they were written, it was our way of getting to know the person behind the name. With every unsaved and deleted email we will know corresponding less of the minds we admire.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Surviving The Workplace

Guy Browning's 20 tips for career success made me chuckle - specially tip number 2 : Ignore all email. The reason being - "Most emails are biodegradable, however. If you let them sink to the bottom of the pile and go unanswered they will eventually become irrelevant."

Number 12 is not half bad either : Dress up not down - The one caveat being "On the other hand, never look too businesslike. This marks you out as someone who works in organised crime or as an undertaker, if not both." I have a metrosexual sitting right across from me and he gives me the creeps each time he moisturizes his hands and uses lip balm in full view of everyone. His white shirts could serve as reflectors for portrait photographers - it actually hurts the eye. I wonder now if he might have anything to do with the underworld.

His definition of a consultant - "A consultant is someone in business with an ego so large it takes more than one company to support it" is spot on as well.

Bait And Switch

The rate at which single girlfriends call me for relationship advice, I think I should set up a Paypal payment plan, skip the day job (and town for good measure) to find a myself a retreat by the ocean where I can meditate in peace on the question of human relationships.

The inevitable happened. Steve and Poorvi broke up and I was in the know within hours. I have to admit I get good news pretty fast as well. So its not as if I am remembered only in the darkest hour which would be terrible. I had been informed when they had decided to "go exclusive".

Best that I knew, Poorvi was not really seeing anyone else even before the exclusivity had been declared - she is just not good at multi-tasking men given the demands on her time. Between her modeling gigs, dance performances and job time is invariably scarce and the little she had left she religiously gave to her boyfriend of six months.

We had a long discussion about the events leading up to the break up. Women have no peace until a dead relation is exhumed and autopsied to their complete satisfaction. Mainly, they are trying to answer the question "Did I do anything to precipitate this or was it not meant to be ?" At an emotional level they find it impossible to accept the later hypothesis i.e. it was never meant to be and the signs were writ large if she had wanted to see.

At an intellectual level the post mortem is a lessons learnt session accompanied by much self-flagellation. "How could I be so dumb ?" is a recurring refrain in these discussions. Once that is over, they recount the sequence of events and I listen closely. Much of my
analysis will depend on the data provided.

Apparently the wheels of karma if you will had been set in motion about a week ago. She had text messaged Steve "Call me. We need to talk" and he when he did, they had decided to end it. He had shown absolutely no interest in giving it another shot, resuscitating what had been for the most part a wonderful time together.

In as such, Poorvi felt like she had given him the opportunity to bail out. She had raved and ranted at him but before signing off he had said "Let's try to stay friends" At this point there was a pause I both know to expect and dread.

"And you want to call him ?" I asked.

"You think that would be wrong ?" Poorvi wondered aloud.

"Not if you want to engage in great make up sex. This would present the perfect opportunity. Better still show up at his doorstep with a batch of homemade cookies." I replied sighing inwardly.

In the course of the next one hour and a half (note to myself : always switch to the hands-free when girlfriends who are in a relationship call on Saturday evenings. It is rarely if ever good news and never gets done before a couple of hours) the cause of the break up became more apparent.

Steve had expended considerable time, effort and not to mention money on this relationship. Lately, he had been talking about introducing her to his family. In fact, only a couple of weeks ago she had chatted with his older brother on the phone. Poorvi had apparently made it clear that physical intimacy was not part of "going out", "getting to know each other", "having a great time together" in her book.

He expressed his frustration at this arrangement but had been going along with it just fine. It took him a month to be able to kiss her properly - all efforts until then had been met with resistance or cheek instead of mouth. This did not bode well and I would have told her as much had I known before.

Every time the relationship got into a little trouble and they "talked" about it (There was a theme here too. Invariably it was Poorvi who became aware of the trouble and Steve was surprised to learn of it) He would tell her how he was not able to bridge the emotional distance in a relationship where no physical intimacy existed.

Each time thereafter, Poorvi would go further than she really wanted to. To quote her, they had been making "incremental progress" towards the end game of making love at his place one Friday night. I gather that defined relationship Nirvana to Steve. I was disappointed to hear her admit quite candidly that if he had persisted with her until she had met the parents, she may have gone all the way. She was surprised that he did not care enough to persist with her till then. By now, I had heard enough.

"You tried a bait and switch on him and that clearly did not work. On the one hand you tell him that sex is not okay before marriage and then you turn around spend the night with him at his place, let him go only thus far and no further. What's more he gets to go a little further each time he tries. You have clearly not conveyed a consistent message to him" I said.

"But I did only what I thought felt right. And I wanted to be fair to him as well. If intimacy was that important to him, I figured it would be okay to go along with that to a point that I felt comfortable" Poorvi said to justify herself.

"You got him all confused about the kind of girl you really are. What you do with him is going to form his idea about what you have done and will do with a dozen other men. He might have started out thinking you were conservative and viewed marriage as sacrosanct. That would be consistent with stereotypes he may have had about desis and our moral values. I would not be surprised if that had not been a key factor in his interest in you as a potential wife. " I theorized.

"If you had maintained your initial stance about intimacy, his impression of you would not have changed. On the other hand if you believed that physical intimacy is a natural progression in relationships and did whatever came naturally whenever it did, he would have been okay with that too. It would burst his little bubble about the Sati Savitri desi woman but he may have gotten over it. What you did was to bait and switch and that is wrong in more ways than I can count." I explained patiently.

"So what did he really want ? He sounded serious about getting married relatively soon" Poorvi asked

"He was most likely serious about getting married sometime soon atleast logically. I doubt his emotional readiness. He was confused about what he wanted and would not even recognize it if he found it. I guess guys like to think intimacy will bring them closer to understanding if they have the emotional connection with a woman. Unfortuately women feed this delusion instead of calling them on it " I said.

"You think he might have been lying about marriage and getting me to meet his parents just to have sex with me ?" Poorvi asked.

"Maybe and maybe not. It is hard to tell. He did not look like a player but then I hardly know him. Maybe he really thought intimacy would help him make up his mind about this relationship. Needless to say it would have done nothing of the sort. Once he is really ready for marriage however many years that takes, he won't need anything to help him make up his mind. Least of all sex. The timing was just wrong for you guys" I concluded.

In a way I am glad this is over, that Poorvi did not suffer too much. Hopefully there were lessons learnt from this mistake that she will find use for in later life. Better still be able to dispense advice on the phone to other girlfriends in need. After a while we all become wise.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tortured Feet

Since it already takes a googobs of money to own many pairs of Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks so getting a toe liposuction to look pretty in them is no big deal in monetary terms. That said, even the idea of shaping toes so they can fit a pair of designer shoes is strongly reminiscent of Chinese foot binding

Foot binding started out as a way for a woman to look beautiful but came to be considered a cruel and inhuman practice. Toe liposuction is now haute coutre but if the long term prognosis is anywhere as dire as foot binding, some day it will get banned too. By then it may have transcended its original role as a way to look perfect in a pair of Jimmy Choos.

"Foot binding not only crippled the women who went through the process but as well as crippled women in China for centuries. Being crippled by foot binding, they had such a little role in the government. It was a custom that started out to define beauty but ended up defining the way the society was."

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Blogger Profiling

Blogging is still new enough to beg the question "Why do people blog ?" and further "What drives people to blogging ?" Micheal Karen attempts answering both. According to him :

"Bloggers think of themselves as rebels against mainstream society, but that rebellion is mostly confined to cyberspace, which makes blogging as melancholic and illusionary as Don Quixote tilting at windmills"

What makes this analysis questionable are the underlying assumptions i.e. bloggers are rebelling against mainstream society - food and travel blogs for instance clearly don't fit that description. What's so rebellious and anti-establishment about posting an unusual cake recipe, the how-to for brewing beer at home or a photoblog of the trip to Machu Pichu ? People always shared such things with friends and family. A blog has just made the process much easier. The global scope of this sharing is a www phenomenon of which blogs are just an incidental part.

The next assumption is about melancholy, isolation and loneliness in real life. I would argue that a lively blog results from the blogger having a real life which provides inspiration for a lot of their posts. Instead of letting life go unexamined, they ponder the whys and wherefores and write about it.

There is ofcourse the "Dear Diary" genre of blogging and I think it is a good thing. Turning your deepest secrets into public domain art wins hands down over paying a shrink obscene amounts of money for therapy. With everyone and their grandmother getting themselves a blog these days, it is no easy feat to understand the average blogger profile.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Eating Well

Great NYT article on the way we look at food, how we eat and the rise of nutritionism.

In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.

Just like the 200 calories can look and taste different depending on their source, the same set of nutrients can be derived from a variety of sources to completely different levels of satisfaction. Eating well is no longer easy or straightforward though Micheal Pollan tries to summarize the plethora of opinion and subject matter expertise in the opening line of his essay "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

I have been an unwilling victim of nutritionism myself. In the interest of expedience, I will cook a "healthy" meal with scant attention to its "soulfulness" for the want of a better term to describe what it is missing. The effects are telling. While I manage to remain in good physical health and maintain a normal weight, my emotional wellness seems to suffer.

Then my parents come visiting and Mom takes over the kitchen, works her magic with the very same ingredients that went into my "healthy" meals. In a few months I look and feel like a different person. The effect wears out in a few months of me being back to my own devices. There is a lot to be said for being happy in anticipation of a meal and the feeling of well being that comes from eating it and defines the difference between surviving and living.

Friday, February 02, 2007

House Husband

The retired husband syndrome strikes a uncomfortably familiar chord. I have seen several men in my extended family in their 60s and 70s who have significantly increased the stress levels of their wives post retirement. These women are housewives and ran their households just as they thought fit. Now with a stay at home husband who provides non-stop performance appraisals and reviews , these women are at their wits end.

No longer is their way of thirty five years good enough. Their best judgment is almost always suspect. Often times, the children are grown-up, married and live separately so there is no one they can turn to for reassurance or comfort. Some of them confess that they long to spend time alone and would love for their husbands to return to work - ideally fulltime. They seek escape in volunteer work, prayer or sympathetic friends and relatives.

The men for their part seem keen on taking an active interest and contributing to the domesticity they were outsiders to all their lives. After decades of pursuing career growth, they have no interest in returning to the corporate world. They believe their rest is well deserved and that their wives would be overjoyed to have them back in the marriage. In a sense they want to make up for the lost years and extended absences. Suddenly they want to help in the kitchen, run errands that they are not required to and spend time talking with wives with who they have nothing in common any more.

The women had always been aware of the mental distance and the loss of emotional closeness with their husbands but it turns out the men were too busy being workaholic to notice anything was missing. Like the article says, they can't imagine their 24/7 presence could be so repulsive to their wives that it makes them physically ill.