Saturday, January 26, 2013

Post Dead

Each time I read about yet another new thing to turn a dead person's ashes into,  I wonder about the pace of innovation and what it is means for death itself. Right now, the dead have a dozen options. Depending on who is making the decisions, the dead may not be able to depart without drama  - have their ashes scattered the old fashioned way or be buried. 

Instead they may end up as a paper weight in their loved ones office or be hanging on their living room wall as a portrait - every idea involves loss of dignity. Imagine ending up on eBay, being bought and sold years after you are are dead, never having a final place of repose - something once considered the inalienable right of the dead. The premise of using cremains as medium is about preserving memory tangibly. Yet reducing a complex human life into a trivial, lifeless object, is possibly the worst way to do it. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tribal Project

Interesting article on single parenting and I specially liked this part about another kind of family in which to raise a child

My 8-year-old son and I live in a shared flat with three other adults, a journalist and two doctors. We are like a family, just that we haven chosen each other because we like each other rather than because we are connected by bloodline. My flatmates teach my son skills that I don't have: One plays chess with him, the other piano, the next one soccer. By law, I am a single mother. By life, my son is a tribal project of the modern kind.

Back when I was raising J alone, I would have loved an arrangement like that. I had some help from friends who stepped in when the could with skills they had to teach. The hardest thing about parenting alone is not knowing if you are making the right decisions and how some of them will impact the child over time. 

I have benefited from listening to DB's view of things even when I did not agree with him. His ideas have morphed my parenting style quite a bit in the last three years. I needed help with calibrating my reaction to the offense and the discipline to be consistent in what I communicated to J. Based in my experience, I am guessing this parent would have gained tremendously from having three other adults with different backgrounds and prespectives to help raise the child. Sometimes being in a "bad" situation can result is some amazingly positive outcomes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Highlighted Flaws

Who knew mending broken things could be an art form. Looking at these pictures made me think about flaws and the act of highlighting them to stand out confidently; if that translates to things more intangible than pottery. In relationships, fracture points are often around flaws - the others' or your own. And each time there is an argument or misunderstanding, the fractures grow uglier and there is lesser incentive to mend because the end product will look so badly blemished. Comes a point when all is left is shards and emptiness.

The usual way to fix what is broken is focused on hiding or obscuring the flaws - with the best craftsmanship you could never tell it was once broken. The entire premise of The Golden Bowl,for instance, is based on what it means to have such a well hidden yet fatal flaw in a relationship. The equivalent of kintsugi may be to celebrate the flaws, find humor in them, call attention to their existence and work to fill in the gap with something bold and even outrageously out of character - like gold seams on pottery.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Role Models

Like the author of this article, I am always looking for a desi women born and raised in America who can be positive role models for J. Recently, we became acquainted with Ms T who along with having an impressive set of accomplishments at age twenty, is also a very down to earth young lady. She is driven by things she is passionate about and has taken a non-traditional path to achieving her dreams. It was a pleasure talking with her and I was eager to introduce J to her because Ms T had expressed interest in mentoring kids. 

High achieving and driven desi kids with stellar resumes are easy enough to find, but getting to know someone who has been able to take the best of both worlds (east and west) and forge something unique, enduring and beautiful out of it is not nearly as common. I was most impressed by how self-assured and poised Ms T is - you could tell she had thought through the path she is on and has much to look forward to. As a mother, I have a lot to learn from such kids. I am curious about how they were raised, what their formative influences were, what if any role their parents played in helping them discover their passions. Mostly, I want to know what I should not do so J has a chance to thrive and find her happy place.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Vignettes from Sea - Clustering and Aggregation

I have by now seen the all of my desi brethren traveling with me. It is about Day Four and as I had predicted we have not exchanged any smiles or pleasantries with each other. A desi woman alone on cruise with her minor daughter is an outrage even by the low Class C standards that no self respecting desi would want to dignify with their acknowledgement. But what is life without the outliers - the desi that falls outside the established cluster - happily there are some of those too. And so it happened that I ran into Dusky with Blue Eyeliner while getting myself a bowl of fruit one afternoon. She made polite small talk as she served herself and we parted ways smiling at each other. We were to meet by the coffee machine the next morning.

The thaw from the previous afternoon had now turned to into an ominous chill. This happens a lot in desi to desi interactions when one party has miscued the other party's "true" class. In this case Dusky with Blue Eyeliner probably had me pegged as something other than the Class C that I really am. With the error of judgement having cleared overnight, she was now embarrassed about having spoken to me earlier. I responded to chill with a half smile so we could both save face in this awkward situation. In our subsequent encounters, Dusky with Blue Eyeliner ignored me like I was a piece of furniture. The world was right once again. She hung out with her family - husband and what looked like in-laws.  This was not a clustering and aggregating desi - there are always a few of those. They would end up Class C, if they chose not to improve their social graces.

The clustering phenomenon was an interesting one to observe as time passed. Most desi families would in the least have another family that they were joined in the hip to. The party of about seven to ten (including all of their kids) moved en-masse. By day two the ladies may occasionally split with fifty percent of the kids and the men went with the rest of them. They were always together for dinners and shows often dressed in a coordinated theme or style. They made little effort to befriend other desis organized in clusters similar to their own.  I saw a few new clusters form on the ship but most were prefab. While a two family cluster was the most common, I saw several larger ones. Typically, these folk were upwardly mobile Class Bs or Class As. No matter what the configuration a cluster was always an island that did not allow outsiders in.

Like Dusky with Blue Eyeliner, a few desi families were traveling solo. But unlike Dusky with Blue Eyeliner, some were anxious to be part of a bigger picture. To that end, the phenomenon of aggregation. In this case the seed group was a large one - I would say about five different families. Based on the interactions between them, they did not seem to have the long history and cohesion like the cluster families had. This was a random collection of families that spoke the same native language. 

By day three, a lot of the straggler families had piled on to this group until the aggregation was over fifty strong. They were able to commandeer a couple of full rows at the theater during showtime. It was easy to tell who the alpha pair was in the group. Their class and standing increased the profile of the aggregation on the whole. All of the ladies wanted to be close to Prom Queen and emulate her sense of style. Mr Prom Queen was sadly not Alpha Dog in the aggregation. That mantle fell on a gentleman with a rather homely wife. He was leading the charge as far as the men.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Learning from J

While J was in elementary school, I often used her to review my presentations for work. If she got about half of what I was trying to communicate, we were in good order. If not, it was back to the drawing board to simplify. Keeping material at third grade level is something I take quite seriously and J had been a very useful sidekick. Sadly, J is eleven now and in middle school. 

Quickly, she has outgrown her usefulness as my helper and turned into a vocal critic. I learn things from her all the time - she looks at what I have, is quick to point out how boring it is and how it would make everyone fall sleep. There is no pop, cool color palette or dramatic flair - it is just blah all the way. Why can't I be a little bit more fun ?
She and her friends exclusively use Prezi at school and J is more than happy to sit me down and help me figure Prezi out. Some of the stuff they turn out at school is very neat.There was this one time, I was dealing with a complex visual with a bunch of text in it and J was genuinely shocked that I would not consider the obvious - Thinglink.

I may have lost my trusty sidekick but I guess I could have J teach me how to be less old school and boring at work. I have had co-workers who enlist their middle and high-schoolers to jazz up their dull as ditch-water presentations. I think I may be ready for some of that help from J soon.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Change with Time

Reading this article, made me think of a couple of friends from childhood and youth. No one who knew them would guess how they would change over time. They seem to fit the profile :

But when asked to predict what their personalities and tastes would be like in 10 years, people of all ages consistently played down the potential changes ahead.

A- One of three daughters of an army colonel and his stay at home wife. She was a firebrand - the standard bearer for her other sisters and  many of us. Very bright and industrious, she was the most likely to succeed in our set. There was nothing A was afraid of - she would plunge head first into situations where the best of us might pause. She did not hesitate to speak her mind, make waves or enemies. Always fashion forward, A did not care if he style was considered risque by the standards of the day. No matter how bad the situation, she found a way to make it work out. And yes, she held the institution of marriage in very dim view. She was going to be a career woman, travel the world, use boys for her pleasure and discard them when done. Obviously, in small town India back in my day, A did not think like the average Indian girl and we were in awe of her. I have followed her career with great interest over the years - she did very well for herself until about thirty (no big surprise) and just like that dropped off the workforce with two kids to run a creche out of her suburban Mumbai home. He husband is not anything like the bad boys she used to be attracted to - he epitomizes what A once called "death inducingly boring". 

R - He was one of the brightest kids in grade school who faded out in degrees until he made it his business to disappear in plain sight. From being the kid that always raised his hand to answer all questions in all classes, R was the one you never heard from - ever, he made eye contact with no one - in his teens he never spoke to a girl. If one of us spoke to him, he blushed beetroot red tried to get out of the conversation as quick as possible. In our seventh grade, a few kids in our class got together and staged a mock funeral for R - the idea was he was so absent and quiet that he might as well be dead. He took it in stride but nothing changed. He never made it to any top tier schools, did not end up studying science or math like the "smart" kids and went through the motions of a college education at a no name place. Fifteen or so years later, R is the head of HR in well regarded global company. 

Both A and R seem to be happy with how their lives have turned out or not.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Set Free

DB's friend M was visiting us last evening. He has an adult son and is recently divorced. From decades of being married, having a home and responsibilities that go with being in a family, he is suddenly alone - free and with more options in life than he ever had before. While he is enjoying his new found freedom, he misses the comfort of familiar things. Being a musician and an artist, he is able to channel his time and energy into passions neglected for years in favor of  chores and responsibilities. We were talking about our experiences going through divorce and being single for years after that - the challenges of trying marriage for the second time. M was making jokes about his Facebook relationship status being muddied by his ex-wife wanting to be friends.

They are still in the early stages of emotional separation where it is hard to let go even if everything is sour, bitter and filled with anger. You want to hang on to rage and the object to vent it against. The door has been legally closed but not so in the mind - at least not as yet. As the evening wore on, we had a few drinks, chatted about things not related to relationship and marriage, M brightened up quite a bit. He was talking about the places he and his band performed, the experiences - he shared photographs he had taken and music he had played. Suddenly, he had gone from M - the lost half of a formerly whole entity to M the person that has recently started to get reacquainted with himself. Strange are the uses of freedom, even if it comes at a great cost.

Sometimes coming out of an old or bad marriage is like the spin cycle of a dryer stopping. The haze clears, the colors and fabrics stand out individually - and then there is dead silence. A person is able to take pause and understand their surroundings ; their relationship (if any) with it. M is in that state right now - in his head the world is still spinning furiously and he along with it. In time the inertia of motion will give way to tranquility.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Desire and Drift

Lines from two poems on love and desire made me think about how impossible it is to know your desire and how easy it is to drift from it.

There is this very simple wish for companionship from Carl Sandburg's At a Window

But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness. 

and these lines that acknowledge distance from desire from A.R. Ammon's Continuity

I've pressed so
far away from
my desire that

if you asked
me what I
want I would,

accepting the harmonious
completion of the
drift, say annihilation,

Reading the poems made two separate ideas coalesce for me - like they were companion pieces that were meant to be read together. There was once the need for a voice to speak to me at the day end and  a hand to touch me in the dark room. Indeed, so powerful was that need that I pressed very far away from even knowing my true desire. And to make peace it is best to accept the harmonious completion of the drift

Friday, January 04, 2013

Vignettes from Sea - Sun, Islands, Palm

The pastel colored buildings, the toasty sun, warm breeze, the smell of conch fritters frying in hot oil, honking cars, colorfully painted taxis, loud music and the languid flow of life around me take me back to the home of my childhood.  Traffic is fairly chaotic but we are able to walk through intersections, in and  out of the winding alleys back to the main street. Policemen are controlling traffic the good old fashioned way using their arms and a shrill whistle. I tell J this is a little like time travel - I am back to being her age in small town India where I grew up. 

I show her trees she has never seen before - coconut, banana, papaya, custard apple, sugarcane, palm and mango. In the courtyard of our home, we had most of these trees - back then they were nothing remarkable; everyone I knew had them in their backyards too. Our neighbors had a gigantic jackfruit tree in addition to everything we had. Their guavas were infinitely sweeter than ours. I did not know that I would feel this huge pang of nostalgia at the sight of a fruit laden mango tree worlds away from the home of my childhood. We managed to sight a bread fruit tree which was new for me too. The last time I tasted bread fruit was on a beach vacation at Goa over fifteen years ago.

Even ten years ago, India was already a far cry from what I feel nostalgic for. Every year that I have not been back since then, it moves further and further away from what is imprinted in memory - morphing into something that is impossible to understand unless you have been part of it yourself. Every year that I have not been home, I feel there is less reason to go back - there is nothing left there that will be familiar to me. I would feel like I am visiting a foreign country and may actually feel homeless. Until I go back, I can still imagine an India that does not really exist and continue to indulge my nostalgia of home and homeland. I wonder if that is the reason, I have hesitated to make that long overdue trip.

The islands in the Caribbean were strangely a lot closer to what I have been longing for. Chickens running in around in the yard ( J had never seen a rooster till now and got busy trying to take a picture - she would run into stray goats, donkeys and even horses) , small vegetable patches outside the house, the winding roads up the hills with trucks honking at each other around blind curves to alert each driver of the other's presence.  

Homes have balconies with railings and stairs leading up to them. That would be where you could take a nap on a winter afternoon after a big meal. The smell of the air has traces of everything - the good, bad and the ugly. Flowers I had not seen in forever - all colors of bougainvillea and red oleanders, are blooming everywhere. J was puzzled by my excitement over them and offered to take a pictures of me around my "favorite" flowers. 

And then there were reminders of reality - the high volume of western tourists everywhere, the harbors packed with yatches, speed boats and ofcourse any number of cruise ships, island souvenir shops overflowing with merchandise Made in China, duty free shops selling every well known brand of jewelery, watches, bags and perfume. Hair braiding ladies at every street corner - the occasional Starbucks, finding it easier to get an American meal than an local one. The best views of the ocean from up in the hills, obscured by ugly and often unfinished construction.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Vignettes from Sea- Entranced Youth, Mirthless Mom

Dinnertime on Day One after a full day of being at sea. J and I have scoped out the potential options for dinner and made our choice. Turns out that desis think alike even if they belong to entirely different classes. When we arrive to be seated, we are handed a pager and asked to hang around in the neighboring bar area for about thirty minutes. So J and I walk over to said bar to find a cluster of Class B desis occupying several couches waiting to be seated just like us. 

They give me a withering look of disapproval. The only open spots are at the bar and they follow me with their eyes to see if I will do the unthinkable - sit at the bar with a young child. You can never put anything past the clueless Class C types. I spare them the moral outrage. The rest of the world is scattered around but they have been unable to create a force field specific to their country of origin as the desis have done. We decide to hang around the stairs instead so I have a good view of the crowd and can also hear the pager beep. That is when I first see Entranced Youth (Class A) traipse down the stairs, her permed hair following behind her. She is floating in dream state, her head held so high that it interferes with her line of sight.

I wonder if that is how she carries herself at all times or if this is some cruise ship specific thing that Class A desis do. Class mannerisms can be difficult to grasp if your vantage point is at the bottom of the barrel. Anyway, I observe Entranced Youth with fascination. I figure she is a junior in college. She reminds me of some family I have in NY area (very Class A folk). Like her those kids act like they are the chosen ones who have truly lived and owned the "American Experience" and the rest of their desi peers are not quite in the same league because they never received the"Members Only" memo.

They tend to be the queen bees of their little Class A communities and have the ability to stare through the average population like it were a homogenous transparent object.  The parents from what I have seen in my own family, are in considerable awe of these kids and treat them like they were the embodiment of all things America that they aspire to. The expectation from Class C relatives such as myself is to watch and learn from the best and ofcourse be respectful. Sadly, I failed to meet expectation on all counts and my uncle and aunt have not been in touch with me for nearly ten years now. When a Class C is offered a chance to upgrade and they are obtuse enough to pass, there have to be some consequences.

The local accent is overdone just a tad, almost to overcompensate for any stray traces of desiness that may have rubbed off on them from their parents - they tend to worry about stuff like that a lot. Entranced Youth's hair is a halo almost. The outfit a cross between waif and hipster - clearly I am not fashion forward enough to understand the statement she is making there but am able to sense lack of clarity. In my simplistic view, a young girl with a slim figure can choose to show leg or not, bare midriff or not, bare arms or not - in any combination. What we had going on here was a little different. A pair of tiny shorts and dark pantyhose, a diaphanous long sleeved shirt with a collar over a tank top and then the clouds of permed hair and the "natural look" interpreted as no make up. In the time of The Big Bang Theory, where being confused and desi is nearly impossible, Entranced Youth has made it her life's mission to grapple with ethnic, cultural and racial identity.

I look at her and dread J morphing into that thing at twenty. I glance at J sitting on the stairs minding her own business and wonder what if any measures I can take to prevent that from happening. Then I see Mirthless Mom enter the stage. Maybe it has to do with age, but she is no longer able to stage the Queen of Sheeba entrance like her daughter. But the woman is grim - the last time she smiled the house may have caught on fire - what else may explain the permafrost on her face, her hair is a smaller halo and sits stiffly around her head. She makes no eye contact with the world and like Entranced Youth has the floating walk that makes you worry if she may collide into something. I look back at Entranced Youth and notice the non-smile imprinted on her face. Maybe it runs in the family.

You almost need someone to be in charge of clearing the way for these ladies to walk their dramatic walk. Mirthless Mom is with Regular Dad - the standard issue desi male, average height and weight, well aware of his surroundings, present in current space and time, dressed to blend in and not stand out.There is absolutely nothing about Regular Dad that would call attention.You could stare exactly in his direction and completely fail to notice him. There is something to be said for taking being average to the extreme. Maybe the combination of Mirthless Mom and Regular Dad produce one such as Entranced Youth. Maybe there is hope for J yet.

Regular Dad looks up at J and I, does not smile and looks away promptly. Desis I must point out always catch sight other desis in their vicinity. I am guessing I have been correctly classified as a Class C. The pager beeps, we are famished by now and are very ready for dinner. J has been entertaining herself the whole time, chatting with me sometimes but generally happy on her own. She has no idea she was in the presence of Entranced Youth and family.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Vignettes from Sea - Ocean, Desis

Very quickly I realized that a cruise ship is a gigantic petri dish in which to observe human nature. The challenge is to find the most interesting subjects and be able to observe them over time. Readers of this blog would be aware that I am fascinated by all things desi being desi myself. A displaced desi that has not had the benefit for frequent visits and therefore continued growth in the home culture, ends up turning into a very odd species of desi ( I will refer to this type as Class C of desis)

I am one of those and so is DB. Our kind does not fit anywhere in the desi ecosystem. The second generation desis (referred to as Class A here) assume we are wannabes and treat us with disdain. They tend to have very tight cliques with no room for those unlike themselves. On the other hand, first generation desis (referred to as Class B) who maintain strong connections to home by means of enrollment into the local desi communities, semi-exclusive socialization with other Class Bs, buying homes in desi-fied communities, desi cable television and frequent trips to India, think we are too flaky to be part of their set. There is a long list of qualifications that we do not meet to enter either of these classes that I will not even go into. I have been lucky to run into some odd balls such as DB and myself over the years, but sadly they have been a floating population in my town. While Class C's will gladly welcome any class of desi into their non-existent fold, no upper class desi is remotely interested in our company.

I had to only scan my surroundings on the ship to see that we have a lot of Class B and a scattering of Class A and sadly no Class C desis. My estimation was I would spend the trip without the desis on board acknowledging my existence. I would be stared at quite a bit but no small talk would be made. It would be a miracle if someone smiled at me or God forbid actually talked to me. As desis class up, they learn to give desis such as myself a lot "space" to be. We are free to do as we wish without comment or input from the higher class desis. It is their superior way of tolerating an inherently inferior species. Ten years ago, it bothered me, today I have come to terms with my place in the modern desi caste system. There are distinct advantages to being at the bottom of the totem pole, I have come to realize.

The view from our room is beautiful. Sunlight pours in all day long, the ocean goes from being cerulean blue to a faded indigo. J sits on the ledge of the window to watch the water sometimes. The waves are deceptively small and tranquil. We enjoy going up to the highest deck to feel the wind almost blow us off our feet. There is so much to explore around the ship, we spend our time getting familiar with where we will be spending the week. There is way too much food all times of day. J is in junk food heaven - she has an eight day pass to eat anything she likes without comment from me.

The poolside is the party place almost all times of day. Lot of live music and quite a bit of dancing. It is hard to find a place to sit down because every spot is either taken or strewn with people's belongings. J is not able to enjoy the pool because the salt water bothers her eyes. The captain announces we will be passing Cuba at a certain time - I miss the last part and never find out if and when we did pass it. None of the crew knows anything about it.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Vignettes from Sea - Beginnings

From the time we first met , DB has insisted that it would be healthy for us to take a week or so off from each other every year - we had spent ten (me) and fifteen (him) years living alone and could feel claustrophobic if we did not get some alone time after a while. We had wanted for him to transition slowly into my household after marriage - taking six to nine months to complete the process. 

In reality, the logistics did not work out as we had wished; the move was much quicker and we were not ready to cope with the challenges that it presented. Surprisingly, J adjusted to him a lot sooner than we expected but the two of us were like Schopenhauer's porcupines. So once the dust had settled, he started to remind me that I needed to take a vacation with J, get away for a bit - enjoy some alone time without him. And finally this Christmas we were able to make it - a Caribbean cruise.

A mother-daughter trip is a very special thing - the first time to a new country even more so. J is now old enough that she can fully participate and enjoy the journey. She got really excited helping me pack for the trip - it was what made it real for her. Yet, when DB dropped us off at the airport, I felt a sense of deja vu and some simmering resentment at him for making me do this alone and not going on vacation as a "family".  For years, J and I had traveled everywhere together - that was the only way and it was the extent of our family unit. Other than the wedding ring, nothing seemed to have changed in my life. But J seemed to see the vacation in a very different light. She has fading memories of the time when I was a single parent - so this was like a new adventure for her. By the time our plane landed in Miami my spirits had lifted.

Leaving the port and the city in gathering darkness until the horizon was wiped clean of tall buildings and the bare sky had taken over. One in a group of thousand strangers on a floating vessel in the middle of the ocean. Having the choice to lose access to phone and internet completely was strangely liberating. Anyone who wanted to contact me would now have to wait and I would need to make peace with being off the grid as well. And this was only a little after six in the evening - we were to be at sea all day the next day. I realized that I had not had a slice of quiet, unconnected  time that long in the last fifteen years. I was not entirely sure how I would fare but decided to remain as unconnected as possible for the duration of this vacation. I wanted to experience my thoughts flow without interruption.