THE BEST OR NOTHING

It crawled into our garage in the fall of 1999, the ultimate ownership vehicle, a Mercedes E-320, a black, sleek thing with a steel insignia on the hood. My husband, then 44, wanted the best or nothing. We were at a place in our lives where it was time to wear a stamp and seal of authority so people would sit up and take notice. The first time my body eased into its leather luxury, it was special, you know, like a first house or a first diamond choker. It was a strange thought, and it still always is to me, that even as every such acquisition revved up in our hands and won everyone’s appreciation, it was already well on its way towards depreciation.

Our sedan carried violins. It ferried books, backpacks and soccer cleats. It was a carpool vehicle for years alongside its clunky partner, the Toyota Sienna. It seemed that one day all of a sudden—and this happened under our very noses and we couldn’t even smell it—the Benz started reeking of peanut-butter jelly sandwiches and yogurt, decimating all scent of spanking new leather in the way that all novelty is squeezed out of a marriage as careers, babies, diapers, rents, fees, bills, parties and taxes file into the home.

When our daughter became the third driver in the house, she announced that she would not be seen behind the wheels of that ugly van. The first tickets began trickling in. The most memorable of them all was the one she received while noticing, in the mirror, that a police car was trailing her. She tried to make way for the officer so he could pursue his victim when she realized, in cold sweaty horror, after three blocks, that too, that she had been the cop’s target all along. The speeding ticket she received was followed by a truckload of others when, four years later, our boy began to drive the car.

Like him, the car too began to live in the moment. It began to chase experiences, not possessions. But one afternoon after school, our 11th grader discovered that someone had filched the car’s most prized possession—the hood ornament. Could anyone ever imagine a Gandhi without his glasses? A J-Lo without her posterior? A Dolly Parton without her anterior? Well, now, shorn of its brand, the car seemed to squeak, missing the signature piece that had once given other cars on the road the middle finger.

Over time, the Benz became many things to the boy. Once it was a vending kiosk. Its young driver displayed its wares inside the trunk, selling branded used t-shirts and sweatshirts to his class mates for a clean profit which he then applied towards other purchases. After 2012, our ultimate driving machine began to be seen around the beat-up parts of Berkeley but when it came back into our garage one summer, the car’s aging owner noticed that it was wearing a patch on its back. “Not one, several patches,” my husband whined, standing behind the car, looking over it in disbelief. The boy, in collusion with his friend Tim, had used black duct tape to cover the rough edges of an accident, trusting that parents were so foggy that they would never discover the damage. A lot has happened to the Benz in eighteen years, as you can see, but I hope you now understand how in the last few years, this once top of the line Mercedes, began to seem like the frumpiest yellow Ambassador taxi in India’s Kolkata.

For a Benz that had already been benched in the last month, there was one final personal affront, a violation of its innards. Three weeks ago, in a grungy part of downtown San Jose, a no-good hammered the left rear window and made off with whatever he found on the seat—my boy’s jersey, a bag and some other things. And so, last morning, our Mercedes left our driveway never to return. As it edged out, I thought it caressed the shrub to the far right of the house, casting a last look at us from its left window, nursing a hole that may never be filled.

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An Infinite Life

The movie was to begin at 1 PM. We’d had a late breakfast and we decided that we'd have lunch after the movie; my husband fretted, however, that he would be ravenous before the movie ended. He walked up to the counter to buy himself a packet of some Sabra Roasted Red Pepper Hummus. The package came with a hummus cup and a dozen chipped crackers. He stared at it for a few seconds. “You know, when I see this sort of thing, I have an optimization problem,” he said. “I have to estimate how efficiently I must finish both the hummus and the crackers. It’s not easy to work one’s way through it.”

When I hear such observations from intelligent people who have architected big data systems that run airlines, hospitals and universities, my frontal lobes self-destruct.

I looked at him as he dipped a cracker shard in the dip. “But efficiency in the perfect depletion of hummus is pointless. I would rather you deploy all that efficiency into the conduct of your life. For instance, instead of splurging time on Facebook, you might as well redirect it somewhere else.”

He stopped, between the dipping and the munching, to argue with me. “You don’t get it.  This hummus and these crackers are finite.”

“Your life too is finite,” I said. “Who told you otherwise?” I felt like a Vitamix blender mashing cooked garbanzo. “FYI, we don’t all have an infinite number of years to live.”

“No, you don’t get it. I know exactly how much I have of both this hummus and these crackers. Look, I can SEE it as I eat it.”

“But no one knows if they have an hour left or a decade left or three decades left.”

By now my husband was puree. Still, he continued to argue, keeping his head above the sludge of hummus until he had finished every crumb and had spooned the hummus cup so clean that it shone like glass.

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A Concentrate

When I was growing up, my father, the late Daddykins, made comments about people—who belonged to another city, another community, another sect, another religion, another country—that I valued as gospel. It took me years to shed some of his beliefs. It would be decades before I formulated my own set of ideals.

Daddykins would have been desperately saddened by the events of Friday, the 13th, in Paris, one of his favorite cities. Indeed, on some days, I saw how my father felt the violence of the world in his core. He was a decent human being, a gentleman, actually, by world definition, and yet, despite his tolerance and magnanimity, he could be small-minded, in the most unexpected ways, and at the strangest of times.

He was a vegetarian, as were most Hindu Brahmin men of the time. But he looked askance at those who ate meat. He exercised every morning throughout his life—he played tennis in his youth and he walked in his later years—and so, he was snooty about those who didn’t factor any exercise into their daily regimen. He read The Hindu every morning, between exercise and prayer, and therefore he looked down his nose at those who didn’t keep up with current events or analyze the daily editorial. He watched television only in the evening, after work; consequently, he decried the no-good who watched television during the day. He worked until a few months before his end when he was a few months shy of 91, and quite obviously he mocked those who had retired early, as he said, work-wise and mind-wise. He prayed morning and evening—they were really short bursts of meditation—and he judged people by whether or not they put mind to prayer. He cast withering glances my way when, on some days, I made irreverent comments as he sat down for prayer. Daddykins disagreed with my opinion that religion and good character were often two orthogonal intents.

I wondered about the environments parents created for children and about how we indoctrinated our children with our philosophies of how life ought to be lived. I believe my home is as liberal as those of many others. Yet, my husband and I are riddled with biases rising out of our versions of our truths. Two days after the Paris attacks, an eloquent British Muslim scholar stated, on television, that we can take out all the ISIS but we cannot root out a whole ideology with air raids. I also recall something the Dalai Lama said recently, that we need to go back and work on the individual and on ourselves: “Our troubles will increase if we don't put moral principles over money. Morality is important for everyone, including religious people and politicians. The problems that we are facing today are the result of superficial differences over religious faiths and nationalities. We are one people.”

Parents still have so much work to do. I look at my children and I think they’re more open-minded, more idealistic, and more humanistic than I will ever be. But it’s easier to slash our wrists and let ourselves bleed to death than it is to rid ourselves of our convictions.

I don’t believe I ever brought Daddykins around to my way of thinking with respect to piety and several other things. By the time he died, he resembled a concentrate of juice—seven times more concentrated than the original and so viscous and opaque that a ray of sun would not pass through.

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Cell By Cell

Our home used to resound with music in the years 1994 to 2012. Some of the early notes were painful to the ears. I thought I’d die, cell by cell, from bombardment by bad notes.

There must be such a thing. There must be people who, sensing they have poor musical sense, go on learning music anyway. Cells must pop inside them—under an avalanche of bad phrasing—becoming goo.

I imagine a new diagnosis of sorts in medicine in which the doctor places a stethoscope on a man’s skin and says, in a mournful tone, “I’m afraid, Mister NoNotes, that you’ve contracted Immusicalia. You will die. Unless you stop singing or playing the trombone, of course.”

So you can see why, in the early years of parenting, I worried, I was suffocated with anxiety, in fact, that my children may not have inherited my musicality and that, instead, they might have acquired their father’s. But the girl and the boy became sensitive musicians with fine ears and nimble fingers. I was sad, however, when they decided that while the fine arts would never leave them, they would not pursue a professional life in arts performance.

This morning, I received a message from my son in Berlin. “Hey, I’ve rented a violin and I’m playing after such a long time. It’s so fun.”

I saw the message rather late today but ever since I read it, I’ve been feeling that my cells are holding hands inside of me. They’re putting their whole cells in and their whole cells out and their whole cells in and turning themselves around. They’re doing the hokey pokey and turning them cells around and that’s what it's all about.

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Mothering

 

I’ve been appalled that my son’s bank in the US has been unable to replace a deleted debit card. On a recent visit to Berlin, I discovered why nothing had happened even after my son’s complaints to the bank. He was being overly polite.

One evening, I heard my boy talk to the bank rep. He sounded as if he were at a confessional. I grabbed the phone from him, ambushing the gentleman at the other end of the line.

 “This here is the boy’s mother,” I said. “I’m sick of this runaround! Did you hear me? I’m sick of it.” I proceed to tell the man just how furious I was with the delay and ineptitude. I used bombastic words. I threw dates. I spat facts. It wasn’t enough that they would not deal with me in America because the son was not a minor anymore. Now that I was in Berlin with my son, I was still being given the runaround, I said.

Ten minutes later, I handed the phone back to my  boy, satisfied that I’d dragged the clerk through the coals. “And that’s how you deal with these people, baby,” I said. I felt proud.  I deserved the Distinguished Service Medal in Mothering.

 My son demurred. He said I had been unpleasant and rude to the clerk.

 I told him he needed to bone up, that he needed to stop sounding as if he were on his first date. I told him he needed to pretend he was being evicted or extradited or something nasty like that. “You need to learn to yell as if you are on your last euro.”   

“But the clerk is merely a cog in the wheel, Mom,” the boy said. “They have rules, you know. The bank guy told you exactly what he told me. You didn’t change the outcome.”

Days later, we were still at an impasse, even after my son mailed them a letter with the requisite information and a signature. Today, two weeks after my return from Berlin, I called the local bank. The accounts manager at the bank, Mike, told me to calm down, that nothing could be accomplished by yelling.

 An hour later I walked into the bank with a copy of my son’s letter. Mike was as calm in person as he had sounded on the phone. His eyes were sky-blue. He had a day’s stubble. He looked like a young philosophy grad who had arrived at his job as a last resort. “Let me check your son’s signature,” he said.

I wanted to tell Mike there was no need. No signature had more cachet than a mother’s testimony. Mothers were always right. We were privy to conversations about warts, fears, girls, dreams—and signatures. No bank or physician’s office could take that away from us just because our child was past 18 years of age. Yes, my son wasn’t a minor anymore. But my major was Mothering, first and foremost, and so I could also weigh in on the point of signature comparison.

I warned Mike. “If you check his current signature against what it was four years ago, I bet it will be quite different.” I told him that college transformed a young man’s outlook as well as his signature.

 Mike looked up and smiled. He asked about Berlin. After looking through the folder they had on file, he nodded.

“Yes, your son’s signature has changed since 2011 and I’m unable to verify it. But you know what? I’m going to help you out. This has gone on way too long. You’ll have a new card in the mail next week.”

I thanked him. As for all the spit and rant over the issue—which will end only when my son receives the card—I believe it was justified.

 My son needs to know this: A little shouting may not open doors but it certainly unlocks a window.

The i-Marriage

“Look at so-and-so,” I said to my husband the other day while talking about a married couple who must have been conjoined at birth. “They use “we” whenever they talk about their lives. They do everything together.”

The we-Couples I know always walk together. They are one entity with one head, four hands and four legs. While he cuts vegetables, she cooks. While she puts the dinner away, he loads the dishwasher. They take the garbage out together: she collects all the trash in the house; he rolls out the carts. They make grocery lists together. They hold hands at Safeway. And of course, while they do their taxes together every April, they also itemize the todos of every ordinary day, always watching that they don’t tax each other out. I hear only one note in their marriage: the harmonious "we" note.

On the other hand, we, my husband and I, are the i-Couple. I leave notes for my husband on some mornings like this. “You’ll get your tea after you empty the dishwasher which has been waiting since Alexander The Great crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains into India.” Sometimes I leave a red rose by the note. I’m sweet and all.

These days, when we drive places, the GPS lady comes between us. He listens to her. Note that in a we-Marriage, the GPS lady is one of a threesome, directing the couple towards the perfect union of their souls. In my marriage, the GPS lady seems to have a different angle on everything. She has Occupied the third vertex of our love triangle.

It follows that my husband and I do not walk together. The last time, my man got ready to walk, right about the time I set out for my walk, I warned him. “You know, I won’t talk when I walk,” I said. “I’ll be busy with Michael Krasny or Ira Glass or Salman Rushdie.” So he plugged his device into his ears and marched on ahead. I picked my podcast. I turned right in the direction of De Anza Boulevard. He turned left towards Scotland Road.

Our singular marriage has most relevance in bed. By midnight, my husband may be found in his natural habitat, huddled inside the double layers of comforters, finger pulsating over his phone. I lie down by his side, my iPhone in hand. We are in an i-Marriage.

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The Telephone Grizzly

People don’t realize that the telephone is the first lifeline that snips when a parent takes ill. When my mother’s cancer seeped into her brain, she didn’t know to ask for her black diary. That’s where she stored my phone number and those of all the people she called every day for something or other.

A decade later, when my father, the late Daddykins, dissolved into his illness, he stopped going to the phone. Instead, it went to him. It went to him through the person of the deputy secretary of homeland security, Vinayagam.

The young man would take the cordless phone to the rust-orange sofa by the window where his boss sat, newspaper on his lap, buried in the fog that separates the dying from the living.

“Saar, it’s your sister!” he'd say to Daddykins. “It’s your sweet sister from Kerala, Saar.” And my father would intone into the phone, fielding my aunt’s endless questions like an iPhone Siri, incapable of a laugh, a cry, a chortle, a snicker, a squeal, a surprise, a chuckle or a point of view.

Those of us who have lost a parent know that the day of demise isn’t the day of an actual, physical, blood-congealing death. It’s the day following which the parent will not come to the phone. It’s the day the parent is taught, by someone else, to greet the child.

For me, the telephone, especially my landline, is a grizzly monster, a demon that screens and permits incoming calls only from those on earth. For instance, it didn’t ring the morning of my birthday when, like the Times Square ball, Daddykins’ call would be the first one to drop so I could begin my life anew.

But I know one man is trying hard to keep my father alive. When I called Vinayagam today, four days after my birthday, he did what Daddykins always did. He sang into the phone exactly the way his boss used to, like a broken record. He sang the first two lines: “Happy Birthday to you, Kalpana. Happy Birthday to you, Kalpana.”

For those eleven seconds, for exactly those cadent but unmusical seconds, Daddykins was alive, again.

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White Lies

Every few months, I have a long conversation with this Chinese-American who lives a few doors away. This morning, I happened to run into her during the course of my walk. She told me she was juggling a lot. Her son was in the toughest years at school. Her mother was suffering from advanced cancer.

Figuring out doctors, therapies and schedules were only part of the family’s struggles. The big challege was coming to terms with her mother’s pressing need for secrecy. She didn’t want any of their relatives to know about her condition. When relatives called to chat, she evaded and prevaricated, fabricating new stakes of fibs to bolster her phantasmagoric tent of white lies.

My neighbor was embarrassed and exasperated. “Now, whether I like it or not, I have been co-opted into all the lies and cover-ups.” She was caught between her duty to her mother and her own conscience.

“Is it a problem only with folks in the Asian cultures, this need to lie about one’s health?” she asked me. I wondered about it. Where I was from, a broken leg evoked extraordinary sympathy. A disturbed mind? Well, we tied an invisible wrist-band to the patient and tagged it with markers like “past sins”, “stigma” and “silence”.

I told my neighbor about my emotional struggles with regard to family members, some of whom valued secrecy for today over wellness for the long term. We saw no solution in sight. People were all different, we decided. Who were we to say that one way was the right way to live? And who were we to tell someone, even one from whom life was leaking out, how he or she must think?

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Reasonably Satisfied

Every Sunday evening, at about 6.30 PM, my husband routinely sets out the garbage carts outside our home for the Monday morning pickup. As always, today too he first dragged the biggest one to the curb, the one with lawn trimmings and leaves and dirt. Then he wheeled out the bright blue one that held all the recyclables to our front door where I had already set out all the paper and plastic. Then he came by with the lean brown one into which he dumped the garbage from the kitchen that I’d got ready in a bag by the door. Next, he rolled the full carts down our driveway and set them out exactly at a two-foot distance of one another, wheels to the curb. I was thanking my stars for having married a man who went about most of his domestic chores without ever having to be reminded of them when my opinion of him underwent a pragmatic revision.

As I walked about my neighborhood this evening I realized that all men of every size, shape and race were doing exactly the same thing. An Indian gentleman, portly and not as easy on the eye as my graying partner, was readying the carts outside his home. Down the street from us, another balding man, a Caucasian, was walking down his driveway wheeling out a third cart. Across from him, a Chinese-American was fulfilling his duties as a good husband and citizen.

I concluded that while neighborhood watch was “a program of systematic local vigilance by residents of a neighborhood to discourage crime, especially burglary,” it was also another means for a thinking woman to revise her opinion of her husband from “Truly Elated” to “Reasonably Satisfied.”

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In Its Place

I believe an uncluttered home is a sign of an uncluttered mind. Like the late Daddykins used to say to me when I was growing up, “each, each thing in each, each place.” And like many of us, I too have modeled myself after my parents—with a place for everything and everything in its place.

Last night I was appalled when I discovered that my husband had arranged all his tiny shampoos and conditioners in an open cupboard in direct view of the toilet bowl. This morning I warned him that this was dangerous in earthquake country. He needed to move them if he didn’t want them toppling into the toilet. In any case, I had a big box marked “All Filched Hotel Shampoos And Conditioners.” Why hadn’t he put them in there? He knew I had a box or a place for everything.

 “You know,” my husband said from his spot at our granite counter. He glared at me with a wry face, right pointer finger hovering over his cell phone. “Given a chance, you’ll find a “place” in the house for me too, won’t you?”

 He had ventured into very marshy terrain.

“Exactly,” I said. I paused. I held my breath in my cheek. I felt the tension of the lioness just before she put claw to wildebeest. “I’m putting you in your place.”

 At the moment the house is resounding with the melodious strains of my wicked cackle but something tells me this will be avenged when the time is just right.

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