Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Heat And Ice

One evening during the recent snowstorm, DB said to me "For snow to settle on the ground and turn to ice, the ground has to be cold. If it is sizzling hot, the snow will melt away". He has a way with metaphors. This one came about in the context of (and the challenges  resulting from ) my innate nature which is impatient, intense and restless. The snow turning to ice parallels the constant nurturing of a new marriage until it becomes rock-solid and stable. The parched earth reference is all too evident.

Conversation turned to other things but DB's impromptu metaphor stayed with me. As I watched the snow settle down on the tree-lined streets and become ice, I found myself thinking about what cooling down would mean for me. It would mean learning to let go of things from the past, not feeling the need to be in control of my life, learning to accept that I have and continue to be wrong about many things, allow the snow to settle at its own pace without worrying too much about what might follow. Mainly it would be about learning acceptance and finding tranquility.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Couple

The life of H and S (a couple I knew a long time ago) is one I have followed over the years because there are so much to learn from it. They met when he was a TA in her undergrad class. She was six years younger than him. They made an exceptionally good looking pair and seemed to have everything that mattered in common. In short, a match made in heaven. Her parents were disappointed in her choice of husband because they thought she deserved a lot better than H.
The proverbial serpent in their marital paradise was socio-economic disparity between the two families. Her parents were tenured professors at a well-known university. They were also independently affluent. His father was a high-school drop out and worked with a traveling theater group. His mother had no formal education and worked odd jobs where she found them to support the family. They were both artistically gifted (a quality they had passed on to H) but had very little material success. 
H for his part, had always excelled academically and was working his way up in the corporate world. However, his overwhelming sense of inferiority to S (and her family) along with the constant need to prove his worth to them, ended their marriage ten years and two kids later. H has since re-married a woman who is nothing like the beautiful and exceptionally talented S. Indeed, he made a concerted effort to find someone who did not remind him of S at all. They have another child together. His career has taken off in a way that even he may not have imagined possible even five or six years ago.
S continues to be a single mother to their two kids. H has detached himself from their lives to focus on his new family. The endless bickering over parenting style was draining them both out and not doing the kids any favors either. S had to slow down career-wise despite her considerable talents, to be able to mother them without a partner. Fifteen years later, H is exactly where he may have wanted to be to prove to S and her family that she could not have found herself a better, more qualified or successful husband. His accomplishments are spectacular by any standard. She was to him the epitome of the perfect wife, the soul-mate he had sought and found.
Theirs was the perfect union that came apart before it's potential could be fully realized. I often wonder if they don't regret having parted ways much too soon or maybe the end of the marriage gave H the drive to achieve what he has. Even though they are not together anymore, the need to prove himself to S and her family must be a driving force in H's life. I wonder if such a marriage can then be called "over" - if S is still not the what inspires H to achieve and excel each day. I wonder if they are still not a couple in the heart and soul.In such a vicarious union, does one party win at the expense of the other. H got his impetus to be wildly successful but S could not achieve anything close to her potential. I wonder about the fairness of it all - specially for S. If however, one removes material measures of success (and failure), would S have appear to have emerged a winner as well.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Patching Jeans

I have a pair of very faded and comfortable blue jeans. The best I recall, I bought these at least five years ago and wore them to the exclusion of any other jeans I owned. This past weekend, I spent many hours patching and appliquéing my favorite article of clothing. By the time I was done, I was worn out and my jeans had acquired a fresh lease of life. The project was a labor of love and a form of meditation.
There are friendships I have in the waning months of the year resurrected from the dead or near-death and nurtured back to life. Like my freshly patched jeans, they feel revived from the effort I just put into them. Unlike the jeans, I do not have a way to hold up my work and admire it. When I get off the phone with E for instance and promise to catch up with her again soon, I don't know for a fact that the friendship is healthy enough to survive the long periods of neglect, misuse and disregard.
I wore my jeans this morning and both J and DB said they looked really nice. Clearly, the infusion of life into it showed. My only regret was that I as I waited as long as I did to get started. Watching me toil over my shabby old jeans last night, DB said "I wish you were doing all this work on a nicer pair of jeans". I wish the same for many things in my life, where the repair and resuscitation came a little too late. Each time I wear these jeans, I will remember to attend to what I must, when I must instead of waiting till life hangs by a thread.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Great Adjustment Story

My grandmother lived to be ninety five and the family was relieved when she finally passed on. That is a sad fate for anyone. Her death gave me reason to pause and reconsider my own relationship with her which truth be told, was non-existent. With her gone, I was able to discern her good qualities better and make an effort to understand her not so good ones. It made me want to understand how did she become the person we all knew and so heartily disliked. 
She was my grandfather's second wife. His first love and wife died at childbirth leaving him a heart-broken widower with a five year old daughter and a new born son. That son died a year later leaving him even more desolate. To shore up his dying spirits and get him some help raising his daughter, the family decided to get him re-married. The first wife was wraith-like, beautiful, well-educated and had a lot of artistic talent. She came from an aristocratic family and had been raised with care. She had been a true companion to my grandfather who was something of a Renaissance Man himself. 
This time around, the family decided that the most important quality for the would be bride was robust health. The man did not need another wife to die on him.So they found my grandmother, a woman as strong as an ox with an unlimited capacity for hard-work, second grade education with nothing beyond youth to redeem her utter plainness.It became evident to her right after the marriage that her husband's heart belonged to his beloved first wife and all she could expect from the relationship was to be provided four meals a day, a roof over her head giving birth to a child each year. They had ten children together, lost a few along to way and lived in genteel poverty. She cooked, clean, scrubbed and did her conjugal duties but never received anything a wife might expect from her husband. This was the life she adjusted to. 
Coming from a poor family where there were five other sisters that needed to be married off, she had no choice or recourse. Adjustment was her mantra. She adjusted to being unloved, being treated like she did not deserve any better than she got, having motherhood thrust upon her time after time, losing her youth before its time, living in hopelessness about the future, worrying about the prospects of her daughters in the marriage market and much more. 
She adjusted to being a powerless, non-entity in her own household. The children gravitated towards her husband because he was a great father who helped them with their education, encouraged their non-academic interests and engaged them in meaningful conversation. Yet he never taught them to love and respect their mother. She adjusted to the narrative that her husband was a great man who had to commended for his patience and fortitude tolerating one such as herself. 
She was sixteen when they got married and yet it was never an expectation from the Renaissance Man to shape and form her into the companion of his dreams. She adjusted to being told she was ugly and stupid and was exceptionally lucky to have found such a great man as her husband. She adjusted to being told that she had no part in the success of her children because she brought nothing of value to the table - except the good health they all enjoy. If ever a woman was treated like cattle, my grandmother was and she adjusted to it. 
Until her death, she paid attention to herself. She wore crisp white cotton saris, combed her gray hair until it shone like silver. She wore some simple gold jewelry made from money she had saved over many years. She taught herself to read and tried to read everything that came her way. She adjusted to being viewed as a shrew by her daughters-in-law and grandchildren until she died. She adjusted to being avoided to the point, where she lived alone in her room, emotionally cut off from the family. No one had the patience to put up with her drama. 
We all missed our grandfather - a refined man of many talents and the sweetest temperament. A man who was like a giant umbrella over the family - ready to counsel and shepherd anyone who was in trouble. Everyone bent over backwards to attend to his needs but my grandmother was always tossed aside like a rag doll past it's prime. She adjusted to being last and the least all her life. Indeed, there was very little that the woman could not adjust to. Of all the stories of adjustment in marriage that I know of, hers is the greatest.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Real India

My cousin D has recently moved back to Bangalore after ten years here in the US. He came as a grad student and like many stayed on to live, work and make a home in this country. When we caught up recently, I found myself comparing his experience of Bangalore to mine (which is eight years old now). There is a certain timelessness about India which makes it easier on those who have been away for a while to adjust to the sweeping changes of the past decade. The recalcitrant domestic help, the teeth-pulling agony of trying to get some of the simplest chores done, the ubiquitous squalor and dust. D and his wife deal with those things just the way I had and the way our parents and grandparents had before us. 
Yet, if one has the money and the willingness to spend it freely, D tells me that is possible to create a protective cocoon that leaves everything unpalatable out. The question of "Real India" becomes a very subjective one at that point. Those inside their cocoon see a world entirely different from those who don't happen to have such protections. 
The cocooned life would begin inside an upscale gated community, the conduit to the outside world a chauffeured air-conditioned car that took one to work at an office park with accouterments that beat the best the West has to offer. They may choose to eat on the "cheap" at the company cafeteria or be driven up to a nice restaurant for lunch.They would shop at supermarkets and never need to set foot in a bazaar or a sabzi-mandi. They would never need to jostle the crowds to buy cheap street fashion being hawked on the pavements of the city. Instead they would go to an upscale store and pay the steep tag for comfort, convenience and brand.Work-life balance is not yet a social construct but that may change in time too.
D's generation for the most part began their careers in India and with the growth opportunities that came their way, ended up staying there and flourishing. They have traveled around the world and still prefer living in India to anywhere else. D and his family are a bit of an anomaly. For his friends, the cocooned life-style is the only one they know since they became independent. It is what they negotiated for themselves. The old fashioned ideas of their middle class parents mean nothing to them. Being frugal, cutting corners and squirreling away everything possible for the future are not things that this generation believes in. D is finding that hard to stomach as would I.Both he and I have not had the opportunity to grow into the changed India organically. We left early and carried with us the values from our parents that have really no place in modern India.
He realizes that he needs the cocoon to thrive and yet the cost of acquiring one seems too steep to him. When faced with a 2000 rupee tab a pub for a couple of pitchers of beer and appetizers, D finds himself converting that to dollars and asking himself if he would have spent that much in absolute terms or a fraction of his net US income. Often times, he finds that the cocooned lifestyle requires him to be much more generous with his paycheck and profligate with his savings than he has ever been. Until he is able to make that transition, his Indian experience remains completely unlike those in his social milieu.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Trying To Nest

As a first time home-buyer in America, I can't but think "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;" for home-buying. There is so much information and misinformation wherever I look that I wish at times, I could shut out all sources and just trust my own instincts. On the one hand, there is a buyer's market - the prices have not been this good in decades, on the other the best deals coming out of the market condition are not exactly what we have in mind for a home. 
It does not help that DB and I are still working out what the "ideal" home for our family would be. We have been going through the motions the last few months - finding a place we like online, contacting the realtor for a showing, coming home confused about how far reality is from what we had imagined something to be based on pictures and videos of the house. Then there is the talking and being shown around, being handed colorful brochure ware on those who would entice us to buy balanced by the many cautionary tales of those who have.
Some days, the urge to nest in the suburbia does not feel nearly strong enough to fight the FUD that lies on the way to home buying.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Work Not Pleasure

For the first time this year, J had to study for a test and the we discovered she had no idea how to study for one. This came as a revelation to me and my first instinct was to panic. DB was a little bemused by the whole situation and asked the obvious "How would you expect her to know what to do when you've never showed her how ?" By the time I was J's age, I was veteran test taker. In India a nine year old does not remember a time when they did not take tests. I must have been taught in my time too but was so young that I have no recollection of it - I thought that test taking is instinctive not much different from breathing. We are now working with J, teaching her some basic skills she will need to succeed as a student.
Reading this article about how the educational crisis in America is a moral and not a monetary one, struck a deep chord in the context of my recent challenges. J's complete unpreparedness for test taking in fourth grade is a telling example of schools making the "mildest demands" on students.
We have gone from a culture where real demands were made on students at home and in school to one where homes and schools make only the mildest demands on children. Instead adults have become eager providers of their children’s natural, but endless, appetite for pleasure. 
The point is not that kids are rotten and teachers are lazy and parents are idiots. Rather, that we have created the wrong child-raising culture and the results are clearly confirming that.  
For parents who are trying to correct course at home, the task is a daunting one. The social expectation of us is to be providers of entertainment and pleasure to the kids.When we do very little of that and try to fill the gaping voids in their education instead, our efforts are met with a lot of resistance. J may appreciate my efforts in later life, but right now Mommy is a mostly an insufferable nag, a demanding task master and just does not know how to have fun. Unfortunately for me, most of my peers are exceptionally good at being entertainers to their kids. Sadly for J, she will grow up feeling she did not have nearly as much fun as most other kids she knows.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Another Haunting

MJ had returned from the dead for the sixth time since the beginning of their pseudo relationship. Many of Sheila's male friends had told her a long time ago this man was a bad news and the sooner she tossed him out of her life, the better off she'd be. He girlfriends warned her nothing good would ever come out of this outrageously stupid situation she was subjecting herself too - if she had an iota of common sense she should run like the wind. Yet, she found herself relenting to his 53rd email spread over a period of two years. The man was relentless - he just did not know how to give up, how to stop or move on. She wrote him back hoping this ghost from the past would finally be exorcised.
The communication followed the ever so familiar pattern - flirtation, the instant spark of connection between two really good friends, the rekindled hope of how special this could be. While MJ followed his time-tested mo, Sheila tried something radically different - she gave him an ultimatum. They had to get married by a certain date or they would never be in touch again. MJ treated this as an interesting variation of their old cat and mouse game. The off and on pattern of their relationship had lasted for years without anything changing on either side. 
There was a sense of finality about their status quo and he was comfortable knowing Sheila was there, still single and "technically" available for a hypothetical relationship and marriage in the distant future. He wanted her to wait until he got ready to take the plunge, he asked for six more months, she offered six more days. On day six, she stopped responding to him - just as she had promised. He persisted for several months after and then fell silent. 
That might have been the finale of the Sheila and MJ story except that it was not.


Both my grandmothers and mother made a few kanthas for me through my growing up years. Even as a child, I was extremely attached these utterly comfortable quilts made from old cotton saris, layered and sewed together by hand to make qulits. These were labors of love that sometimes took months to finish and nothing comes quite close to being a "comforter" for the heart and soul as a kantha does.

The last quilt my mother made for me was when I was getting ready for college. It was possibly the most elaborate one she ever made. Once it was done, I could not bear to use and ruin it. Instead, I used it sparingly as a bed spread. I knew she would never muster the stamina and patience to do anything like it again. It would my last kantha.

Reading about how quilting has gone Web 2.0 thanks to technology, reminded me of those kanthas from a long time ago. Unlike a lot of things that have traveled around with me, the kanthas remained home in India with my parents. I miss them every year when the weather starts to get mild but is not yet very cold - that is the perfect time to bundle up in a kantha.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Talking About Money

For over eight years as a single parent, I straddled the fine line between talking too little or too much about finances with J. I was determined that she never felt "poor" in a material sense though I frequently over-compensated with emotional comfort just in case she did. To that end, J has never had (and to her credit, asked for) a lot of anything - clothes, books, toys and more. Instead I took time to do bead work on a plain white tee, embellished a jean jacket with embroidery and sewed on colorful patchwork on her jeans - there was a little bit of me in everything that was J's. 
She has always had enough to be comfortable but not to become and extension of my ego dolled up in designer couture. I pride myself on being economical without being stingy but these measures are completely subjective. My friend or neighbor may have an entirely different view of me than I do of myself. DB for instance thinks I don't give the child nearly enough and that this a tender age - my "frugality" may end up hurting her confidence as she is not able to be as well-heeled as her peers when I have the wherewithal to give her a lot more than I do.
As a compromise, J has come into some spiffy new clothes - I notice that she is happy to have them but coming as late as they have in her childhood, she is not entirely beholden to them. I am staying true to my principle of building in her a sense of style that transcends the dictates of peer pressure and fleeting fashion trends. DB says that I am way too demanding of a child less than ten years old and am pushing her to becoming an outlier. I don't agree with the first part of his observation but when it comes to style, I would love nothing more than for J to find a niche that is exclusively her own and cannot be imitated. If that means becoming an outlier, so be it. As we shift and change to accommodate the other's views, J experiencing the shifting tides too.  
This post was triggered by reading this article about what not to say to your kids about money. It was relieving in some sense to know that I have not said any of the supposedly wrong things to J. The issue of clothing and related self-esteem is something I continue to think about - at what point does it stop being about J and become about what her parents want to project about themselves ? What is the best way for J to blend in with her peer groups, without sacrificing her individuality or becoming one of the herd ? 
While I may not agree with DB's assessment, he does give me food for thought and I am very happy for that.