Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Blogging

I will be offline for a couple of weeks. I'll post links to interesting stuff as and when I can, but in the meantime I hope you will find something you like in the archives. I look forward to catching up when I get back.

NRI Parents' Association in Vadodara

Via e-mail I received a link to the website of an organization serving the needs of NRI parents (parents of non-resident Indians) in Vadodara:

http://www.nripagujarat.com/

The website also provides information about a similar organization in Bangalore (http://www.nripagujarat.com/nri/other-nri-organisations/). The following few paragraphs is from their "About" section:

NRI Parents Association, Vadodara, Gujarat was formed on July 21, 2002 by a group of concerned NRI parents who felt the need to promote the Association with following aims and objectives.

AIMS AND OBJECTIVES

To promote fellowship goodwill and mutual support among members and others.

To build a network of support in the areas of Health Care, Help in Ageing Processes, Cultural and Religious, legal help for protecting rights to properties and assets.

To utilize the expertise, experience and resources of parents and their children for the benefit of the society at large.

With a view to achieve above objectives following activities are planned:

Publication of Newsletter to promote contacts among parents and children.

Arrange lectures, seminars, workshops to give information with regard to Visa, Passport, Medical Insurance, Foreign exchange regulation and other related topics.

Contact the Government agencies, Foreign Missions and other related agencies to sort out the problems of NRI parents.

Set up a small library of books, magazines and journals and documents related to NRI affairs and helpful to them.

A couple of years ago I wrote about an article in Outlook magazine about NRI parent associations mushrooming in cities across India and how these groups help aging parents cope with having to live far away from their children:
Here's a social sub-group that my parents belong to, but it never crossed my mind until I read this article in the Feb 6, 2006 edition of Outlook magazine - NRI Parents.
In other words, parents of Non-Resident Indians.

These parents have a lot more in common than just their children living away from them in foreign lands. They face common issues at home - loneliness, lack of a support system, travel issues, management of funds, etc. So they banded together to form associations. Many such associations are already up and running in almost every major city in India including Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Baroda, Ahmedabad and Coimbatore.
The entire post is here.

If you are aware of anyone who might benefit from these associations, please direct them appropriately.

Monday, May 25, 2009

My World: Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most visited tourist sites in the Washington, D.C. area, with around four million visitors every year. The evidence is all too clear as you stand at the information desk inside the bright, airy building at the entrance to the cemetery. A thousand people seem to be milling around you, buying tickets for guided tours, asking for information, perusing maps, getting oriented before heading out the doors and on to the grounds.

Barely a couple of hundred feet outside the entrance to the visitors' information office lies another world.

Perhaps it is this gentle reminder that sets the tone.

Perhaps it's the 600 acres of land sprawling outward and upward from under your feet. Perhaps it's the winding pathways on gently undulating hills, the lush trees, the grass drenched in a rich shade of green. Perhaps it's this oasis of silence just outside a bustling city.

Perhaps.

But at just a few more steps from that signpost the reason - hundreds of thousands of reasons, in fact - for the serenity and the awed hush that envelopes you becomes painfully obvious. Gravestones. On either side of you and ahead of you as far as the eye can see.




The neat rows appear to be in straight lines no matter the angle from which you view them, forming mesmerizing patterns.



If people talk at all, it's in quiet tones and in whispers. On the pedestrian only pathways, if a car drives by, pedestrians move away in respect, because only those who have loved ones buried at this cemetery are allowed to drive in.

Designated in 1864 as a military cemetery, the Arlington National Cemetery was initially used to bury the Civil War dead. Now more than 300,000 people, including soldiers who died in the wars since the Civil War, combat veterans, Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, are buried at the cemetery. The cemetery's website says that an average of 27 funerals take place every day. The funerals these days are for those soldiers who die on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and for World War II veterans.


The cemetery is divided into various numbered sections, each section designated for a particular conflict. In Section 27, for example, are buried former slaves who fought during the Civil War. Their tombstones designate their rank as "civilian" or "citizen". Section 60, pictured above, has been called the "saddest acre in America," and is the designated space for soldiers who die in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the end of the section bookended by two streets, lies another marker. From this end the empty space is foreboding.

In 1868, the military issued an order and set aside the last Monday in the month of May as a day of remembrance and as a day to honor those who serve in the military, now observed as Memorial Day. From the Memorial Day Order:

We are organized, Comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers sailors and Marines, who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead? We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

[...]

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation's gratitude—the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.

As you make your way up and around the winding paths at Arlington National Cemetery, it is not just the miles and miles of gravestones that remind you just exactly what it takes to preserve freedom. It is also the people that are walking all around you - aging parents who've come to say goodbye to their children, young soldiers, some of them barely 19, 20 years old; comrades who've come to remember; young women, with flowers in one hand, the other hand wrapped around a child's tiny palm who've come to say goodbye to their husbands; women, widowed now for years, who've come to plant flowers at their husband's graves; widowers who've come with a stool in tow, just to sit for a while near their wives' graves.

All kinds of people, in all shades of the human rainbow, of myriad nationalities, of all ages and abilities, in all stations in life - rich, poor, middle class. If a walk through the cemetery is a walk through American and world history, it is also a lesson in anthropology.

Families pay homage to a loved one.
There were three generations in that small group you see in the center.

The man came to pay a visit to his wife's gravestone, but searched in vain for that of a friend

Some come by walk, some come by metro, some come in cars, some come on buses, some come on thundering motorbikes.

Memorial Day Weekend in Washington means that the Rolling Thunder comes into town. From Wikipedia:

Starting in 1987 and continuing through May of 2008 Rolling Thunder has been conducting the “Rolling Thunder Run” in which all of its members attend. For 21 years the members of Rolling Thunder have converged on Washington, D.C to show their continued support for the efforts to find lost service men and women of past conflicts. In May of 2001 the estimated number of motorcycles involved in this rally was 200,000; by May 2008 that number had risen to more than 350,000.

It is humbling and thrilling to be anywhere close to where a large group of the vets on bikes have gathered. You only have an inkling of what they might have gone through in combat, but you can't help admiring their determination and perseverance in showing up every year and in large numbers for their fallen and missing comrades.

Two members of the Rolling Thunder arrive at Arlington Cemetery to pay homage


I took this picture last year as the bikers made their way to Constitution Avenue from the Lincoln Memorial

Memorial Day means many things to many people. It means the end of the school year - well, almost; the beginning of summer; the day the swimming pools open in the colder regions of the country; a day for blockbuster sales; a day when the smoke and aroma of barbecues fill backyards across the country. It also means, in cities and towns across the country, and in the capital, Washington, D.C., a day to remember those who fight on our behalf and give their lives so we may live ours in peace.

No matter which nook of the world we live in and no matter which corner of the world we came from, it's a fine day to tip our collective hat to all our soldiers.

P.S. HBO Documentary Films made a movie about Section 60. I couldn't bring myself to see it when it was first shown. For those who are interested, there's information about the movie online on HBO's website.

This is my world this week. For views from other corners of the world, visit My World.


Update: Adding a link to Lola's heartfelt post about the Sant'Anna massacre called 'Tiny Heroes':

I entered the church at my own risk. I had been warned by the sound engineer, my friend Maurizio. He had gone in minutes prior and exited sniffling. He's usually a big smile person, so a sad face on him stood out like a sore thumb. I wanted to go in nonetheless, to say a little prayer for those 560 people that died on a morning not unlike that one.

The entire east-facing wall of the tiny chapel was covered floor to ceiling with small plaques, faded photos, scribbled inscriptions and epitaphs. The age of the oldest victim honored on that wall was 16. The youngest was a 2-week old infant. That wall was the children's memorial section, and the images of those 110 innocent faces staring back at me was gripping my throat like a tight Nazi fist. The majority of the victims of the massacre that took place in Sant'Anna di Stazzema were children and young women. The men were either fighting, dead or hiding in the mountains surrounding the town. The few invalid elders in Sant'Anna died by the same two MG34 machine-guns that swept the church ground that day.

Please do read the entire post. It is available by clicking here.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A soldier faces down the Taliban - in pink boxer shorts

I was driving to Arlington National Cemetery this morning when I heard this report on NPR's Weekend Edition titled Real Men Wear Pink Boxers:

Photo Credit: Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder

U.S. Army Specialist Zachary Boyd of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, who is 19, was sleeping when the Taliban attacked his unit in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Specialist Boyd leapt from his bunk. He grabbed his weapon, pulled on his helmet and vest, and manned his station behind sandbags at Firebase Restropo. He did not stop to pull on trousers.
His mom's reaction? Priceless.
"I was always telling him to pull up his pants," Sheree Boyd recalls. "I would give him a wedgie to make him do it. As a mom, you want your son to look nice. But he has always been one to run around in his boxers."
Bravery comes in all forms. Some are brave in battlefields. Some are brave in ordinary homes just like yours and mine all over the world.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Footloose Friday - VII

My brother sent me this video of musicians from around the world singing Stand By Me. I've always loved the song and I've watched the video many times, but it never fails to produce goose bumps and a prickling behind my eyes. Music is truly the language of the heart. It needs no words.

"Stand by Me" performed by musicians around the world from SKAT on Vimeo.

Have a wonderful weekend with the people that stand by you!

This is the seventh in a series. For more Footloose Friday posts, please click here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Yard Sale

It was a bright yellow table with four sturdy legs. White flowers arched gracefully across its shiny top. Two panels, attached by hinges to the main panel, hung on the sides. Without them the table was round. When the panels came up, the table morphed into an oval-top.

But its best feature was the price. At $5.00 (with a chair thrown in), it had my name written all over it.

I was a newly minted immigrant foraging low cost department stores and although I did not know it then, that uniquely American phenomenon known as the 'yard sale', for the basic household items I needed as a student. I slept on a sleeping bag I had brought from India. My room had a built-in, rectangular closet for my clothes. Renee, my roommate, drove me out to the store where I purchased a fan (for $10.00 - turned out to be a great value; we still use it 16 years later) to minimize cooling costs. All I needed now was a table to house my books.

On the way back to our apartment, we came across a small house with all manner of stuff on the sidewalk. A young man and a woman were busy running in and out of their house. Renee stopped the car and asked if I wanted to look at what they had. Not really sure what she meant, I just nodded. Straightaway she zoned in on the table, assessing if it would fit in her car.

At some point in the next few minutes I gleaned what was going on. The man and the woman had finished up school and were getting ready to move away. They were trying to sell as many of their possessions as they could before packing up the rest. Five dollars seemed like a great price for a table. Perhaps he saw 'poor, desperate student' written all over my face. He offered one of the two chairs for the same price. So what if it was a dining table? I could leave the panels down and it would fit perfectly in the corner by the window in my room.

As we stashed the table into the trunk and the chair into the back seat and drove on, the novelty of the situation, the thrill of a cheap buy and the relief at not having to spend any more money on setting up my room in the immediate future brought on a giddy feeling.

It was my first brush with a yard sale. In the intervening years, however, it has become obvious that the yard sale - or the moving sale, garage sale or rummage sale as it is variously known - is much more complex than someone trying to offload their expendable belongings before moving on.

At a community yard sale a few days ago I talked to one woman who walked or drove from yard to yard. I was on my walk and I ran into her a few times. She peered carefully at the display tables, occasionally talking to the owners. She came away from each yard with empty hands. It was apparent that she did not find what she was looking for. After about the fourth time of seeing each other, we stopped to chat.


Seriously awesome boots for sale

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" I asked.

"A nut cracker," she said.

"Couldn't you find one in a shop?"

"Well, I was hoping to get one for around 50 cents."

There in lies the thrill of the yard sale. The prospect of finding something for a fraction of its retail cost. Perhaps the nut cracker was a necessity in her kitchen, but she was willing to wait until the weather turned favorable for yard sales, willing to wait until she could eventually find one that someone else no longer needed. Growing up, her family made the rounds of yard sales every weekend, she said. The habit must be hard to shake off.

It was difficult not to notice the large numbers of immigrant families at the yard sale. Being a new immigrant in a rich country is tough, especially in a country that prays at the altar of consumerism and especially in this period of prolonged downturn we find ourselves in. Most had come looking for clothes, toys and games for their children. As I watched one of the mothers pick out the clothes for the younger children, the older ones walked around picking out their own clothes and games. The prices were clearly marked on the items, but when the mother went to pay for her purchases, the owner halved the prices. The mother's face lit up and she walked to her car with a delighted grin.

A young boy eagerly flipped through a carton of children's books

A couple of older ladies walked around the tables, their languid gait belying the intensity of their purpose. They were looking for that special something - an antique lamp that could make a pair out of one they already had, or an antique chair or table that would match their decor. A little girl looked out through the window of her car as her father slowly drove by and spied what she thought was a megaphone. She ran up excitedly to the display table and was crushed to find that it was a table lamp. A man found the study desk he wanted. It was priced at $25. He wanted it for $10. "Come back in a couple of hours and if I still haven't sold it you can have it for $10," the owner told him. A woman drove in from ten miles away hoping to find a pair of boots but they turned out to be too small for her. A man bought a table fan for his son's room. A couple bought a pair of cross-country skis and the ski suits and gloves to go with them. A mother bought a coffee maker and a floor lamp for her children's new dorms. They were going away to college and she was trying to set up their dorm rooms for them as much as she could before they left home. A man drove in with a pick-up truck. He was looking for a lawn mower and he found one. A grand-mother bought a stack of children's books for her grand-daughter. A woman bought a play pen for her daughter.

A quirky sign

A group of high school kids got together, pooled all the stuff in their homes they (and their families) no longer needed and set up a collective yard sale to raise funds for the adventure group they were part of. A family with grown children sold toys and books that were no longer used. A woman sold her grand-children's toys and her daughter's books. Lots of families sold old kitchen utensils, photo frames, deck chairs, jewelery, tables, crockery, garden tools, stereo systems. The variety was breathtaking.

An old, old set of plates to clean crumbs off a table. This set belonged to the seller's daughter-in-law's great grandmother.

The seller no longer had any use for The Wonder That Was India

Why would they not just give it away? This question has occurred to me more than once, especially when I see mounds of clothes on the lawns. But the fact is people do give away their things. Every winter the schools organize clothing and toy drives for disadvantaged families and the donations are more than generous. Then there are the regular donations to the Salvation Army and to churches and community food banks.

The answer to the question came from the lady who came looking for a nut cracker. She said she gives away many things each year, but that some of her belongings hold a sentimental value for her. She'd rather see the person she is giving it to and know that the item has some value to the person who is buying it from her. Even if she ends up selling it for a dollar, she derives satisfaction from knowing that the person bought it because they wanted it and will use it.

The yard sale (and perhaps the flea market, I don't know) is just about the only place in the US where the art of haggling finds a place. The lady who bought books for her grand-children bargained the price down to half the listed price. An Asian lady made out like a bandit with three huge pans. It is obvious to all the participants what the purpose of the yard sale is - the sellers want to move the items; under no circumstances do they want to have to take the stuff back into their homes. So the buyers negotiate and are willing to wait until the end of the designated time for the yard sale to move in for the kill.

Children's books were marked down as the day wore on

For the youngsters who were trying to raise funds for their adventure trips, this turned out to be an exercise in figuring out what they could live without, pricing, inventory management, negotiating and closing the deal. And what a delightful objective to work towards!

At the material level, the yard sale is a lesson in economics and resource management, a course in consumer behavior, a way to make money, and yes, a sure fire approach to getting rid of stuff and clearing out clutter. At the human level, though, it is an intricate web of needs, wants, desires and necessities. And people connecting over mundane objects that once meant something to someone, and if the stars are aligned on that particular day, will continue to have meaning to someone else.

That yellow table I bought all those years ago? Its use reverted to the original intent. When I got married and moved out of Philadelphia, we used it - with the side panels up - as a dining table for nearly four years. Pretty good for $5, eh?

P.S. When C heard of the high-schoolers' plan, he hatched a plot of his own to make money for a video game he wanted to buy. He set up a lemonade and pakoda (an Indian savory snack) stand right next to the high school kids. After the first couple of times he mastered his explanation of what a pakoda was and he actually made it sound very delicious. As the day wore on and it got hot and lunchtime neared, he made brisk business and made more money than he expected to. At the end of the day he realized he was at the right place with the right product at the right price. I could only marvel at the chain of events that led to this. At his age, I was clueless about any of it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A version of this essay has been published here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

What's to love about being a mom?

It was during one of those innumerable calls I made to my mother and my mother-in-law when I was pregnant that I distinctly remember noticing a difference - I now related to them as a woman. I was not yet a mother, but neither was I merely a daughter or daughter-in-law. I was a woman on a journey to motherhood, a journey they'd already been on and therefore were repositories of rich experience I was grateful to tap into.

They guided me through the aches and pains, through the heartburn, the strange goings-on in the pit of my stomach, amazed that I had no cravings while regaling me with stories of their own. Between the two of them, they had raised six children (well, first of all they had delivered six children without pain killers), stay at home mothers while their husbands worked and took them around from town to town, moving every two or so years. They created homes for us out of strangers' houses in big cities, small towns and villages, they were our anchors in alien ports. They did all the things mothers are supposed to do and then much more. What's not to love about being in their company?

Then C was born. And so a mother and a father. When we first got married, my husband and I got busy finishing up school, starting out on our careers, and finding our feet in a brand new country. Having babies and growing our family was way down on the list of priorities. When we did get around to it, it was a good eight years after we got married. By then we were ready to be parents (as much as anyone could be without having had a child). Nine years after C was born, I no longer remember what I thought being a parent would mean, but it is so many things I did not even have the bandwidth to imagine at the time. The way in which the children relate to their father has been an unexpected source of delight and fascination for me. My becoming a mother had made a father out of my husband. His children reduce him to a puddle of tears, produce antics that have him helplessly laughing until he doubles over in pain, have him looking at the world and wishing it were a gentler, kinder place for children his own and unknown, have shown him his unbounded capacity for love. What's not to love about that?


And the two little human beings that bind us together have also strengthened the bonds between two families. My parents and my in-laws revel in recounting to each other the antics of their grand-children. Never mind that it's a story that's been told and retold a hundred times. The laughter is as genuine as it was the first time anyone heard the stories. And each set of grand-parents sees reflections of their own child in their grand-children and there is great joy in calling out the similarities. As a result, my parents know much more about my husband as a little boy and my in-laws know a little bit more about me as I was when I was a little girl. The same is true of my uncles and aunts - they take delight in catching glimpses of me in D and shades of my brother in C. During the eight years before C was born, I had no inkling that becoming a mother would set off all these ripples that would echo through so many lives. All our lives are richer because my husband and I became parents. What's not to love about that?

And then there is the awesomeness of being handed ring-side seats to witness the journey of two beings - from helpless babies to already now proper little people, with their own ideas; with the tools to express them and act on them; their own quirks and sense of humor; with the curiosity to ask the questions, oh the questions, that drag the imponderables down to the realm of the here and now; with the capacity to feel empathy and sadness for another person; with the wisdom to make the decisions that seem tiny but have enormous impact on their lives; with the hearts to love and to make friendships and to give the softest, sweetest hugs at just the right times; with the ability to understand certain things without receiving an explanation that is at times humbling as it is awe inspiring. What's not to love about that?

Finally, this is the most unexpected of all. Being a mother has made me a lot less judgemental of other people's actions and choices. Having a child puts in front of you a human being that you brought into this world, but is still so different from you. I only have to look at C and D and realize that people cannot react in the same way to the world around them. They are shaped by a different set of genes, by different upbringings, by different environments, by different experiences. Being a mother has made me more understanding. It has made it a little easier to know that most mothers have their children's best interests at heart and are really doing everything they can within their particular set of circumstances to be the best mother they can be.

What's not to love about being a mom?

Sands and Cantaloupe'sAmma both tagged me to write five things I love about being a mother. Apologies, but I'm going to break the rules. I won't tag any of you. If you're interested, however, please do take up the tag.

Update: Sorry about the errors. Fixed the ones I noticed.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tweeting and a history of brevity

Ryan Bigge in The Smart Set:

By the early 17th century, Shakespeare was praising short and snappy punchlines in Hamlet. Later that century, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho became a haiku master thanks to his immortal frog-pond-splash trifecta. By the 20th century, the telegraph made it possible to send your thoughts around the world, but curtness was an economic imperative since you were charged per word. The modern equivalent of the telegraph, thumb-intensive cellphone SMS (text messaging) also makes pithy thoughts a necessity. And overdiscussed Twitter imposes a 140-character limit on your genius, which works out to 20 or 30 words, depending on the sophistication of your vocabulary.

[...]

The concision of telegrams created poetry and wit born of economy. "STREETS FULL OF WATER. PLEASE ADVISE," is what humorist Robert Benchley sent his editor at The New Yorker upon arriving in Venice for the first time.


The entire article is available by clicking here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Travel: Nice and Cannes

If there is one place on earth that is synonymous with glamor, gloss and grandeur wrapped lovingly in exotic old-world charm, it is the French Riviera, or in the infinitely more amorous French, Cote d'Azur. Playground of the stars and home to royalty, the corner of the Mediterranean blessed with blue waters, verdant hills and a lifestyle to match its natural bounty is especially glamorous, glossy and grand this time of year when luminaries bright and not so bright all descend on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.

Two years ago, on our way back to the US from India after our three-year stint in Bangalore, we decided to break the journey mid-way and made our way to the south of France, then headed east to the Amalfi Coast and then back up north to Rome.

We had no idea that we'd timed our trip to coincide exactly with the film festival. Our first inkling came on the flight from Frankfurt to Nice. Sitting a couple of rows ahead of us was the curly-haired guy from HBO's Entourage (he was also in The Devil Wears Prada). Entourage also happened to be filming at Cannes during that period. The airport at Nice was crawling with buff-bodied, high-heeled starlets carrying branded handbags only whose ads I'd seen in Vogue or Vanity Fair. Outside, more commotion. We asked our taxi driver what was was going on. The film festival (to the west of Nice) and a formula car racing event in Monaco (to the east of Nice), he said. The husband and I looked at each other and wondered wordlessly if our timing would turn out to be a big mistake.

A half-hour car ride later, past the Promenade des Anglais, past streets lined with small shops, restaurants and outdoor cafes, we came to our hotel on a quiet side street. Decidedly unglamorous but comfortable, not glossy but friendly, not at all grand but homely.

As we walked around the cobbled streets that evening, up narrow alleys bound by colorful walls, past restaurants alive with people winding down their day, past small stores crowded with last-minute purchasers on their way home, we realized there was a whole another side to the coin, a side that appealed to our sensibilities.




Side streets in Vieux Nice, the Old Quarter

And Indian restaurant displaying an image of Konkana Sen, an Indian actress


An open-air market

Promenade des Anglais overlooking the Mediterranean Sea


The rather narrow beach between the walkway and the water. Very pebbly too.

And even farther away from the madding crowds are the hills. The winding roads offer alternating glimpses of the coastline we leave behind and the tiny towns strewn on the mountainsides. As we ride up, it's difficult not to be reminded of Grace Kelley and her last journey up these hills.





A small clutch of houses that seem to be holdovers from some forgotten century

A view of Monaco


Just driving around for a day in companionable silence, with the kids occasionally dozing off in the back, stopping when we feel like it to stretch our legs or get a cup of coffee or some fruits and some sandwiches is one item that shows up on our itinerary no matter what the destination.

Nice was no different although the drive was a little bit more hairy than we had anticipated. The sometimes bumpy roads winding up the hills are narrow in spots, unable to accommodate two vehicles at one time. So we had to back up quite a few times to make room for another vehicle or make frequent U-turns because we couldn't make turns when we wanted to or we plain lost our way. Which turned out to be fun because I ended up conversing with two old men racing up the hillside on their bikes, me in my broken French and them in their broken English. It provided a welcome interlude and directions to an easier way down the mountain.

Monaco looked alluring and romantic from way up there, but the city was crowded, in full prep mode for the formula racing event that was coming up. So we drove around a couple of times and headed out promptly back to Nice, without even bothering to get down.

And for half a day, we did end up driving out to Cannes. The drive along the coastline was breathtaking as was the excitement at the festival site.

The paparazzi found themselves targets of the tourists


The red carpet laid out for the evening's festivities

There were no stars in sight, although there was plenty of other evidence of luxury and riches including million-dollar sports cars, to C's infinite delight.

P.S. The order of the photos appears to be reversed, but we just took more photos of Old Nice on our last day there, which turned out better than the ones we took our first evening.

Living in the moment, for the future

I tell myself at least once a day that I'm going to go through my days with my eyes open, that I will notice every moment, commit every one of my children's actions into my memory, that I will never ever look back and say that I should have done something more or something different. But this morning, with both the kids at school and the house empty save for me, I was filled with deep regret that I had asked D to stop talking yesterday. I could see all too clearly the day I would not be able to hear her voice no matter how much I craved it. I know it's not practical to live today's life with only the future in mind, but of late I can't seem to keep up with time and how quickly my babies' childhoods are passing right in front of my eyes.

Then I read this beautiful, evocative and powerful essay at The Things We Carried on war and mothers and children. I've reproduced here a portion of the essay that struck a chord, but please do read the entire thing (click on the link above).

My mind tumbles back to the days my miniature men played in the yard, their long skinny legs clad in summer shorts, and their little boy frames wearing brightly colored tee shirts. I wish I could walk to the back door, once more, slide open the screen, and yell in my too loud mom means business voice, "Chris, Eric, Michael, David, come in for dinner. Wash your hands, guys! Tiffanie come downstairs. After dinner we will have a scary movie The Birds and root beer floats." Their childish voices ring in my ears as I write.

If given the chance, I would surely kiss each of their faces as they came through the back door and down the stairs. Certainly, I would turn from the dishes, make eye contact with them, and capture the sweetness of their faces in my memory so much more than I did. I would allow their friends to stay for dinner. I would no longer require an immaculately clean house that has grown too quite, far too quiet, to wrap itself around me.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Totally Random Stuff (aka Everything But the Kitchen Sink)

I've been meaning to blog about these things over the past few days, but haven't been able to for one reason or another. So apologies in advance for socking you with all these topics. I'm hoping at least one with resonate with you.

1. Credit card companies and the dope they have on us: There's an eye-opening article in the latest issue of the New York Times magazine about what exactly our credit card companies know about us and how they use that information to make decisions about our accounts. Particularly revealing was the part about the methods they have devised to predict the credit risk of each of their clients.

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire’s stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere.
[...]
Why did birdseed and snow-rake buyers pay off their debts? The answer, research indicated, was that those consumers felt a sense of responsibility toward the world, manifested in their spending on birds they didn’t own and pedestrians they might not know. Why were felt-pad buyers so upstanding? Because they wanted to protect their belongings, be they hardwood floors or credit scores. Why did chrome-skull owners skip out on their debts? “The person who buys a skull for their car, they are like people who go to a bar named Sharx,” Martin told me. “Would you give them a loan?”
That so much of the detritus of our lives is being scrutinized and dissected so methodically is creepy, but I'd rather that they be assessing credit risk before handing out credit cards instead of slapping even the most infrequent offenders with horrendous fees to make up for their own lack of discernment when casting their nets for clientele.

2. Elizabeth Edwards goes public: OK, so you all have heard about Elizabeth Edwards' new book, Resilience. She's already been on Oprah, the Today show, Larry King Live and has been the subject of a myriad other talk shows. I have not read the book, but it is apparently her take on the adversities she has faced in her life. And they are not few or insignificant - the loss of her son (I don't know how anyone can recover from the loss of a child, but kudos to her and her family for deriving lessons from it and talking about it), her cancer, her husband's affair. One whammy after another.

Of all the topics the book is said to cover, the one the media chooses to zone in on is her husband's affair. Why does she bring it up? What does she hope to gain from it? What does this do to her children? Why is she putting herself and her husband through this? She is only opening herself and her husband up to scrutiny by talking about it now. And so on.

Here's Maureen Dowd in the New York Times:
But it’s just a gratuitous peek into their lives, and one that exposes her kids, by peddling more dregs about their personal family life in a book, and exposes the ex-girlfriend who’s now trying to raise the baby girl, a dead ringer for John Edwards, in South Orange, N.J.
Here's Tina Brown in The Daily Beast:
The hazard of confessional books is how fast the world moves on while they're written. Hearing about that doggy old "misdemeanor"—as she insists on calling her husband's infidelity with a campaign videographer while he was running for president and she was fighting terminal cancer—just drags us back into the messy aftermath of the election season at a time when we are now busy trying to get on with a collapsing economy and save our own lives.
This seems like a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario. If she had written a book about her life's adversities but had not written a word about her husband's affair then the media would have been all over the book for being incomplete and irrelevant. There were also questions swirling around her when the news of the affair first broke as to why she supported his campaign, why she stood next to him at events projecting a picture of solidarity even in the face of betrayal. Here's Salon's Rebecca Traister, one of my favorite writers:
These revelations are crushing to anyone with an idealized view of Elizabeth Edwards. She was supposed to be the responsible one, the direct one. Even if you thought he was kind of plastic-looking, smarmy, perhaps untrustworthy, Elizabeth was solid and dependable and straightforward. But here is the reality: She allowed her husband to risk the health of the nation, not to mention the health of her family. And she remained deaf and dumb to rumors that everyone was hearing. Why did they stay in the race, at the inevitable cost of their privacy, and the potential cost of a national election? Elizabeth has no cogent answers for this, except to note the crazy fantasy that perhaps drove them both.
Perhaps the book and dealing with all the issues she does in it is her way of answering those questions, her way of getting her version of the story out to the public. Moreover, what is the right way to behave in these situations? Are spouses supposed to stand by their straying partners in full view of the public and appear supportive (I'm being politically correct here, but if you do know of straying women and their supportive husbands, please do let me know)? Why?

3. The case against breastfeeding: In an anguished article on feeling self-imposed and societal pressure to breastfeed her children, Hanna Rosin wrote in The Atlantic last month:
The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.
When I read that part about breast-feeing being free I was reminded that that's exactly what I remember people saying in India where a majority of the women just don't have the money to buy formula or do not otherwise have access to it.

It is very easy to want to judge Rosin and I don't want to do that. I wish each of us had the wherewithal to assess all the information available to us but also the self-awareness and courage to do what works for us. No more, no less. Lord knows breastfeeding is hard, and really, each person's perspective depends on her unique set of experiences. The article is honest and thoughtful and I applaud Rosin for that, but this bloggingheads.tv interview (by Rosin) of Dr. Sarah Lawrence, an expert in and advocate of breastfeeding goes ten steps ahead in arming us with what we need the most when approaching parenting - the right attitude.



If you missed it, Dr. Lawrence, while being a resident and a doctor on call, breastfed each of her nine children for two years. If that is not a lesson in figuring out what is important to you, finding a way to do it and moving on with your life, then I don't know what is.

4. Finally, here's a tip. When you are expecting guests over for lunch or dinner, no matter what you're serving, and whether you are cooking the meal yourself or having takeout, about half an hour before guests are scheduled to arrive, saute a few slices of onions in a couple of teaspoons of oil. Nothin' like fried/roasted onions to give off vibes of a warm, welcoming kitchen.

So, let me know what you think!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mind-boggling Marketing by McDonald's

We opened the (snail) mailbox a couple of days ago and found a flyer from McDonald's, addressed to us specifically, advertising their new McCafe coffee line. It caught my eye because we'd just listened to a segment on the launch of McCafe on NPR's Marketplace in the car on the way back from C's swim session. I flipped it over and saw this:


A line of Hindi in English script - "Taste ki baat hai", meaning "It's a matter of taste". It was just so totally unexpected that I needed a moment to figure out I wasn't in India. This is not the first time I've had this "clash of the worlds' experience, but it never fails to get me.

P.S. The original "Clash of the Worlds" post is below. We lived in India then and were visiting the US for a "home visit" (and C was known as N on the blog).
N and I were at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) a couple of days after we got to the US to get our car license tags reissued. We took a number to get in line, I filled out the application form and we sat in the row of chairs facing the 17-odd customer service counters. Christmas decorations were everywhere - green imitation pine streamers hung from the doors, windows and ceiling, red bows punctuating them every two feet or so, and red stockings hung from every counter with the name of each employee written in shiny colorful markers across the white furry borders.

As we sat waiting, we read the names on each of the stockings. When we came to the one with lettering in gold-colored marker, I blinked. The name looked like it had been written in Kannada. I blinked again, but it wouldn't go away.

I asked N to go up closer to the stocking and see if it was written in Kannada. He looked at me like I was nuts ("You've got to be kidding, mom"), but he went to the stocking and looked. It said Safiana. In English, of course.

Snippets of conversations I could not catch in crowded places seemed like they were spoken in Kannada. I looked around and there was not a single Indian face to be seen. It's not just me. On this trip, N sometimes thought he heard Kannada too.

This was not the first time my two worlds have clashed in my head. When we're driving around in the US on a stretch of road empty of other vehicles, with relatives or our Indian friends in the car, listening to a Hindi CD, it comes as a complete shock to me when we come to a traffic signal and there are cars with non-Indian faces in them.

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

And my brain doesn't just transplant India into the US. The reverse works very well too.

A few months ago I was at my uncle's house in Bangalore for a pre-wedding family get-together (my cousin was getting married). I was dressed up in Indian clothes, of course, with bindis going a mile up on my forehead and bangles clanging on my wrists. On the way back home I needed to stop at the grocery store for something.

As I was leaving my uncle's house, an image flitted across my head. I was going to show up at the grocery store in all my Indian finery. Just a thought. And an awareness that I would get a lot of stares and smiles and perhaps some questions. A second later it struck me.

Duh! I'm in India! I'm not going to the local Safeway, I'm going to Monday to Sunday!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Growing up, growing old and things in between

A few weeks ago C, my 9 year-old, wrote in his weekend journal that his grandfather was not his usual self, not being able to go on long walks with him or talk to him for hours on end. "It's all right," he wrote. "He is growing old after all."

For a couple of months before we were able to go to India to visit with my parents, C had known that my father was not keeping well. So when we finally got there C was prepared to see him in bed, tired. For two people who revelled in each other's voices and words, whose days were planned around myriad activities undertaken together, the comfort came this time by just being in each other's presence, some times in the same room, at other times being in the same house was comfort enough.

I fully expected C's adjustment to his grandfather's newly muted abilities to be less smooth and less understanding than it actually was. I know I had a difficult time processing my father's weakness and his passage from a strong, active man to an exhausted soul. Test after test, hospital visit after hospital visit had taken their toll on him physically and emotionally. My father had always been strong. The only time I remember him crying as long as I lived with him was when his oldest brother passed away when I was about five or six and when I had to be hospitalized for some minor illness when I was about thirteen. He was always a no-nonsense person, never shrinking from having to face anything, although in recent years, he has been quicker to show his emotions.

So there I was, worried about what C would be feeling, prepared to hold him up, to tell him that his grandfather would bounce back, to tell him not to worry, that he would be back to his old self in short order, and not at all prepared to have to cajole and berate my father into agreeing to just that one more test and one more doctor's visit and to that one more morsel of food or to just smile a little bit more. I did not have to do any of the former and had to do all of the latter.

C's birthday was coming up a few days after we were to leave India to come back home, but "let's not have a birthday party this year," he said. It has been three weeks since we got back and whenever C's been around when I talk to my husband about my father or talk to my brother or mother about how my dad is doing (with the inevitable tearing up), C quietly sidles in, listens and is there to give me a hug and say, "I love you, Mom" at the end.

I am a mother and a daughter. But the roles, at least with respect to this one aspect in our lives at this time, seem to have undergone a subtle shift.

P.S. Thank you for your comments and your e-mails. My father is doing much better now and the doctors have given him a good prognosis.

ShareThis