Saturday, November 21, 2015

My Hometown

I was born in Vero Beach, Florida. Shortly after I was born--though, obviously, the details are fuzzy--my parents bought a lot off a dirt road in what was then an unincorporated part of Palm Beach County, built a house, and moved me to Snug Harbor Drive off of Prosperity Farms Road where I (mostly) grew up. Our mailing address was in Lake Park, but at some point in time, our neighborhood would become a part of Palm Beach Gardens, though we were closer to Jupiter and I would end up attending Jupiter High School in 1986.

The Jupiter, Florida I grew up in is, I believe, a very different place than it is today. In the late '70s and early '80s I like to believe that the Jupiter, Florida I grew up in had more in common with Henry Flagler's Palm Beach of the 1930's or '40's than the place it is today. Though we had air conditioning and a few other modern conveniences, I remember a unique place habitable to only those inclined to feeling uncomfortable. It was hot, covered in scrub brush and palmetto trees. There were alligators, mosquitoes, cockroaches, snakes, and opossums. There was little to do. There was not yet a generation of stand-up paddleboarders or people doing CrossFit. As far as natural beauty was concerned, there was the ocean and sunsets, as there is now. People fished. They drank beer. In the afternoon, a county truck would drive through the neighborhood spraying pesticide to ward off the mosquitoes. It had a certain, rustic charm, I suppose. As far as hometowns go, it was fairly emblematic of small town America in that it was the exact type of place people left when they got old enough escape. Except for those who didn't.

In short, it's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

I may have written something similar in this blog before. I do recall struggling to articulate my feelings for Florida here. I have tried often to put into words why I feel the way I do for Florida, for Jupiter, for my hometown. I've even tried to Google, "What's wrong with Florida?" (Interestingly enough, search results often show weird shit people do in Florida. My favorite is titled "Florida Man" which features the zany misadventures of the typical Florida Man or Woman such as "Florida Man on Meth Robs 7-11 with Dead Stingray") I have this innate dislike of the area, but I couldn't tell you exactly why, because--on the surface--it seems nice enough, and maybe that is part of the problem. It has palm trees, beaches, nice weather, shopping, fancy restaurants, because it is a place most of the rest of the United States comes to visit. Developers have paved over and air-conditioned most of Florida. They've eradicated the mosquitoes and bulldozed all the scrub and replaced it with towering coconut and royal palms swaying in breezes, and created a picture-perfect oasis where it is impossible to feel even the slightest bit of discomfort. Like Disney, everything is a facade and everything feels the need to conjure the image of some other place, anything else. Very little is Old Florida anymore, and that, too, has become difficult to define. Instead, there are miles after miles of strip malls invoking the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Venice, Tuscany, Martinique, and Barcelona. We wouldn't keep coming back if my parents still didn't live here.

Controversy on the internet currently is focussed on the proposed development of an old waterfront trailer park. The parcel is slated for a super-dense mixed use project of residences, office, restaurant and commercial space along with a five-story parking garage. The density mimics a similar, new development nearby which features a luxury hotel and Tiger Woods' new restaurant. I suppose it would be hard to watch any small fishing village transform into a towers of concrete which ultimately benefits only a very small percentage of the town's populace...and most of those who will visit are seasonal residents. 

I am cautious not to let this devolve into a diatribe piting the haves vs the have-nots. Most--but not all--progress is good.

I think of so much in Florida as not being real. It is a vacationland pandering to those who are on holiday. This is good for me, because I only come on vacation, but I think it lulls those who live here into a false sense of paradise. That used to be me once, and I don't know why it bothers me so much that most who live here don't see it. I readily acknowledge I should not care as much as I do.

Of course, I could be making it much more complicated than it is. My favorite things in the world to do are run, ski, hike, rock climb and drink good beer. None of which (except recently drink good beer) can be done in Florida (you can run in Florida but 359 days a year it is an absolutely miserable experience.) 

Next week we depart for Elise's hometown in Washigton State which is much more my speed. It will be cold and snowy; much more my speed. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Long, Strange Trip

It had been a year and a half since we had been back to the States, or Western civilization for that matter. We stopped in London for three days on our way back from India and we felt like we had been hurtled fifteen years into the future.

It was soggy and cold in London in November. Not unexpected. After the eleven hour flight from Chennai to London, we checked into our hotel and decided to make the short walk to McDonald's, knowing everyone would be asleep by five--jet lag taking its toll early. We shuffled down the sidewalk, through piles of wet leaves, stumbling along practically, BMWs, Mercedes, Range Rovers, and Mini Coopers with halogen headlights swishing by on the pavement beside us; it seemed as though everyone in London drove a grey-colored luxury automobile, a stark contrast to India, where there was the occasional Audi Q5, idling alongside an ox-cart or cycle rickshaw.

When we walked into the brightly-lit McDonalds, our forward progress was immediately halted by a giant touchscreen menu. Animated menu selections danced across the screen. I demurred, not sure if I was ready to make this technological leap, a touchscreen menu board. After we did place our order with a real-life person behind the counter, she pushed the credit card machine toward me. I glanced at her, then regarded the machine warily, not exactly sure what I was supposed to do. I held out my card, but took no immediate action. I glanced back up at her and over to Elise. Elise knew I didn't know what to do, and when I attempted to slide my card through the machine as had been common practice a year and a half ago, the woman took the card from me and inserted the microchip embedded in the card into the machine for me. What would become even more confusing over the next few weeks is that the microchip is not universal, and sometimes you do still need to swipe the credit card and sometimes you do need to insert the microchip into the butt end of the credit card machine, but one thing you can count on is not to have anyone run the card for you. This, too, is a stark contrast with India, where there were routinely at least four service people ready to help you check out. Every commercial transaction required someone to carry your purchases from the store to the check-out counter, someone to check-you out, someone else to bag your purchases, someone to run your credit card, someone to give you your receipt, someone to verify your purchases against the receipt, someone to carry your purchases from the check-out counter to you car, someone to hold the door for you as you left the store, and someone to stamp your receipt as you left the store. Moreover, I was never allowed to do anything for myself. Now, I have to do everything for myself and I'm feeling a little helpless.

When Elise and I went to the cell phone store to get new U.S. sim cards, there was a guy in the store standing on a moving skateboard, except that you move forward and backwards instead of side to side as you would on a skateboard. We saw a security guard on one, too, in front of Buckingham Palace. I'm not sure what the contraption is called, a Segway without the handlebars. The guy in the AT&T store was using it to restock the shelves, so it seemed to me you could very well go through your entire day without walking or exerting oneself physically at all. At the same time, on TV, I saw two guys "swimming" with jet boots on. The boots are attached to a hose which is then attached to the end of the a jet-ski. The jet-ski somehow propels water through the hose at high pressure, creating a jet of water that propels the wearer of the boots twenty feet into the air like a dolphin. I'd never seen anything like either of these things before; it was mind-boggling.

Our second day in London, everyone was up at 2:30 a.m. After an hour of trying to keep them quiet, I finally turned on the TV and let them watch a British kids show, the Alphajacks, which--with a sentient green blob that regurgitated tiny green boogers--was the most bizarre kids show I had ever seen. I'm not sure if it was because I watched it in a haze or if....yeah, wow! was really freakin' weird! At 7:00, we went down for breakfast. It was the kids first exposure to real food, and we all indulged in the all-you-can-eat buffet. Peter ate his weight in pork sausage, ham, and bacon. Sam tunneled through a stack of pancakes, dusted with powdered sugar and doused in chocolate syrup. I drank three very strong cups of coffee and would still fall fast asleep a half hour later.

When everyone roused for the second time, we took the train into town. We got off near Hyde Park and walked the entire length of the park, drinking in the fresh air and stretching our legs after the long flight of the preceding day. We stopped at a hot dog stand and bought giant weiners for the kids. At that moment, I distinctly remember a new electric BMW driving by, traced in neon blue accents. It looked like something out of Tron and heightened my sense of being out of time, on another planet.

After two weeks, I think I am finally starting to get used to this strange, new world. I'm not entirely sure I like it, but I suppose I am stuck with it for now. I am still getting used to TVs blaring everyone, constantly inundating us with breaking news, stock tickers, and box scores. We had heard about the overwhelming number of choices in supermarkets compared to what we were used to seeing in Chennai. By keeping to the perimeter of the store and avoiding the interior aisles, we find we can avoid the Star Wars-ing of everything.

Now, we are in Florida, a nice place to visit.....well, I'll let you figure out the rest (more on that to come), and the long, strange trip continues......

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Our time together since we left India has been punctuated by moments of excitement between long stretches of crying, frayed nerves, screaming, and fighting. It is not easy leaving a place you had come to call home if for no other reason than to be deprived of the routine we thrived on. When you take that dislocation and add a scoop of fear of the unknown--not sure what our future lives hold for us or what our life will be like once we do touchdown in DC-- not to mention a heavy dose of jet lag, there is a kind of stress that is created that has not yet drawn us all together, rather threatened to rip us asunder.

Now that the worst of the jet lag is behind us, I am dealing with emotions I didn't know where there. It is true what they say about children keeping you in the moment. When you are dragging three exhausted, reluctant toddlers halfway across the world, feeding them, putting them to bed, bathing, them, and attenuating to their emotional needs, you have no time to take care of yourself or your emotional needs. You forget that you just moved and take for granted that you, too, may be hurting.

We stopped in London to decompress and get a jump start on the jet lag. We did have fun. We walked through Hyde Park. We rode the Underground and a double-decker bus. We visited the Museum of Natural History, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace. We ordered room service and ate fish and chips. But all I remember is screaming at the kids. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but I guess I took for granted how hard it was going to be. Elise accused me of not relaxing. I was done with work. I was on vacation. Surely, work couldn't be as bad as this. But she was right. I couldn't relax. I didn't realize it then. I didn't know I wasn't relaxed until we made it to Florida. I suppose, in my mind, I couldn't relax until I finished our journey. I guess--without realizing it then--I couldn't let my guard down because we were only halfway home.

It hasn't been much better since we've arrived in Florida. We spent the first week incredibly sleep-deprived and stressed out. we had to buy a car. Every day we didn't, the cost of a rental car got higher. We couldn't find the car we wanted within our budget, and cruising used car lots with three kids in tow was becoming increasingly less fun. I saw my mom and my dad and his family for the first time in over a year, but the reunion is now a haze. I was covered in a thick film of exhaustion and unable to experience the joyful event for what it should have been. I feel I have not caught up with them at all, but gone now is the opportunity to catch up. Questions that should have been asked during those initial meetings went unasked, and to ask them now would be awkward.

One morning, early on in our return to the U.S., I had to get the kids out of the vacant oceanside condominium we are currently calling home before they tore each other to shreds. Elise was putting the finishing touches on her latest assignment--her last in India--and needed some peace and quiet. We all did. I walked them to a nearby park and then down onto the beach. They splashes in the waves and looked for seashells in the sand. They found sea glass and explored tide pools in the rocks. They were carefree, and I didn't care if they got wet or sandy. It is what they needed, a few moments to do what kids do best.

After an hour or so, the three of them say on the rocks, watching the waves crash against them, sending seafoam spraying into the air. I'm not the photographer; that's Elise's job (sometimes much to her chagrin as she complains she has no pictures of her with the kids), and I don't always look for good photo ops like she does, but the three kids sitting on the rocks with the ocean spray shooting into the air behind them was going to be good. So I crouched in the sand to get the right angle and brought my phone to my eye to frame the shot and waited for a wave to crash behind them to get the shot. 

Just as a wave came, I got ready to take the photo, but the wave kept coming and crashed over their heads, overwhelming all three of them. For a split second, they were all gone, under the ocean. They tumbled over the rocks in the whitewash before reemerging further up the sand. They were soaked, sand in their hair, scratches on their legs, and crying.

I stood on the beach with three crying kids trying to assess if any of them were truly seriously injured. They weren't. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), I was just out of the guarded area. Maybe I was lucky, but for some reason I was never really worried, just embarrassed as I shuttled three crying kids over the sand and up to the showers to rinse off the sand and blood. Peter did scream, "I lost my skin!" "I'm going to bleed to death!" And a few other melodramatic pleas, but not only did they survive, they had a tale to share and retell for the next few days, a bonding moment; not that they needed another.

It is getting better. Gradually. We are on a vacation within a vacation and enjoying a few days in a timeshare compliments of Aunt Jackie and Uncle Bill and a day at the Magic Kingdon thanks to Nanny. Some of the magic rubbed off on us. We may be turning a corner. Before coming to Orlando, we instituted mandatory math classes to start the day, installing a small dose of order amidst the chaos. Or maybe just having TV and furniture makes the difference. Never underestimate the power eating off real plates may have.

Friday, November 13, 2015

அப்றோம் பார்க்கலாம்

It hasn't quite been two weeks since we left Chennai, but it might as well have been a lifetime ago.

Now that we are here in Florida, it all seems like a vivid dream. India does not feel distant. It feels as though if I peel back a layer of reality here, underneath lies that frantic streets of Chennai, and if I step through a doorway, I could easily walk from a room in my dad's vacant oceanfront condo in Florida into our kitchen in India and Rita at the stove, making chai.

But we have come back into a very different world. The night before we flew from Chennai to London does seem like a blurry, distant dream. The last days in India were hectic--as was to be expected when on the precipice of a big move. We packed out our house, winded down our lives in India, and run a hundred last minute errands. All I remember now was that it was raining.

We got on the plane early on a Tuesday morning. Two of the drivers from motorpool helped us wrestle seven suitcases, six carry-ons, and three car seats into two vans bound for the airport. The kids, bleary-eyed, piled in on top of Elise, and we moved through the eerily quiet streets of Chennai for the last time, much the same way we came in, already sleep-deprived, under the blaze of an omnipresent yellow halogen glow.

The preceding Saturday was Halloween. At the last possible moment, Elise landed one more assignment in Chennai, and so--on top of everything else--spent most of the weekend racing from one neighborhood to another working. The movers had come through two weeks before, clearing out everything. And I mean everything. The kids did not have a single toy to play with for two weeks. It tested the limits of their ingenuity and our sanity. I am usually reluctant to let them make pillow forts, but in the absence of any other form of distraction or entertainment, I was forced to acquiesce, and their primary activity for two weeks was jumping on the couch. Elise took Sundar and the car for work, so I was faced with the unpleasant task of keeping three rambunctious children from killing each other. Did I mention it rained on Saturday. All day. Anyway, by the end of the day, all were sliding on couch cushions down two flights of marble steps. Under adult supervision and backed by the Star Wars opening theme. Of course, we didn't pack our portable speaker.

That afternoon--with Elise still at work--I took Sam to his best friend's birthday party. He lived down on the ECR (East Coasty Road) halfway to Fisherman's Cove, and we took an Uber forty-five minutes each way in Chennai traffic to spend thirty minutes at the party. It was important to Sam, and Elise and I weren't the only ones saying goodbye to friends. The kids were, too. I wanted to do this for him even if it meant making Halloween incredibly hectic and logistically complicated.

We finally made it back at 5:30, half an hour late for Halloween "trunk or treat". Rita had Clem and Peter in their Halloween costumes, ready to go, lightsabres drawn. Without a car or anything to decorate it with, I Uber-ed with the kids to the party. Elise met us there later.

I came home from work on Monday, our last night in Chennai, to Elise in the kitchen drinking champagne with Rita, our nanny and cook, and Vasanthi, our maid. All were giggling. Vasanthi had never had an alcoholic drink before in her life. Babu, our gardener, tracked me down for a letter of recommendation. After, telling him I would write one upon our return to the States, though he was soggy from the rain, I invited him in, too, and gave him a going away Kingfisher. He drank champagne embarrassingly before slinking out the back door, possibly crying. I couldn't tell.

Elise and Rita said goodbyes while I attempted to hunt down an Uber for Rita. Perhaps fittingly on our last night in India, the Uber driver couldn't find our house even with the benefits of GPS, and she eventually took an auto. Of course, the evening wouldn't have been complete if the tailor didn't stop by to demand more of our time. The woman is an excellent seamstress, but cannot take a hint, and she sat on the couch and watched Elise and I say a tearful goodbye to Sundar.

I had not been looking forward to this. Sundar was the first person we met in India. He was our driver from day one until the very end, and neither Elise or I had gone anyway in Chennai without him. New to a completely foreign country, I had to trust him, but didn't know if I could. I justified it by telling myself I had to trust someone. He wasn't always perfect, and when Elise lodged complaints against him (which were infrequent) I had to weigh the benefits of doubling-down on that trust versus changing course and recognizing the trust had been misplaced; It was not always an easy relationship.

In the end, I had made the right decision to trust him. Call it luck or something more was India, after all.

To someone who is used to doing be so careful with decisions and to do so much due diligence before committing to anything, I struggled to find a way to tell Sundar that I had trusted him blindly, partially out of necessity, and that he had not failed or betrayed that trust. When so many of our colleagues complained about their drivers, Sundar was the poster boy for reliability. No matter what we asked of him, he never, ever, said no, and always said, "Everything no problem."

And so I let this man I didn't know drive my family around in a foreign country we knew nothing about. Crazy, I know, and yet it was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life.

I hugged Sundar, the man who would bow to me and touch my shoes in an undeserved blessing. I didn't know what else to do. He received it stiffly, trying not to tear up, I think.

"Thank you,"I told him, Elise looking on, "I trusted you with my family, and you did not let me down. Not once. I trusted you."

In Tamil, "goodbye" is "அப்றோம் பார்க்கலாம்" or "Aprom parkalam". The --alam ending is the conditional tense, literally "I may see you later." This is said regardless of whether you work with the person and will definitely see them tomorrow or you don't know the person and most likely will never see them again in your life. It's interesting how this part of Indian philosophy is reflected in the language, that everything is possible and a lack of commitment to a certain outcome.

It is also a fitting way to say goodbye to Chennai, anything is possible. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Halloween 2015

If we're being honest.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Bread that Tastes Like Rain

Last night, I came home famished. I plowed through the front door, threw my work bag on the counter and went straight for the fridge. Rita and Elise had ordered Afghan chicken from Zaitoon, arguably the best chicken on the planet. It comes with pita and hummus. Neither are that great. Chennai is not known for its Mediterranean cuisine. I ripped a bite out of the rubbery pita. "This bread tastes like rain," I said to no one in general. It tasted like that mossy, earthy smell after a fresh rain. It could have been the rain or the antibiotics I am taking to ward off a particularly stubborn butt fungus. Sorry. Maybe that was TMI..."Too Much Information".

Elise had spent the day brainstorming for an upcoming photo shoot. It would be her biggest break yet, and even though we were leaving India in five days, she had strategically plotted every shot she needed in order to fulfill the assignment. She was floating with excitement. The soles of her feet did not touch ground.

A few moments later, a second email came through saying confirmation for the assignment has not yet come out of HQ in NYC. She came crashing back to Earth, shattering into a million fragile shards.

She poured herself a pint glass full of wine, then accused me of jinxing her assignment by sharing the news in my excitement. Maybe I did (she would apologize later), but her disappointment was palpable...and understandable. The thing is...the assignment may still be hers...she just won't be in India to fulfill it.

I cut up Afghan chicken in silence, saving all the dark meat and skin for myself, guilty pleasures. A scream cut through the air. Coming from the living room, it shattered whatever relative calm had settled in the kitchen. Peter was sobbing in the living room, and Elise and I rushed to his aid, wine in her hand, chicken slime on my fingers.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

Peter could not stop crying. Sam stood in the door frame separating the living room from the stairwell guiltily.

"He chased me down the stairs," Pete finally managed.

"Why are you chasing him?" either Elise or I asked.

"I want to play with him, but he doesn't want me to be the ground forces!" he spurted accusatorily.

"So, you chased him down the stairs!?"

"He could've fallen!" Elise added.

Eventually, Pete stopped crying, and we all slinked away. Dinner was served. Pete was talkative at dinner, telling us about the Halloween decorations hanging at school.

About halfway through dinner, though, he edged closer to me. He looped his arm through mine. Conversation turned to recess. Sam plays soccer everyday at recess with a group of young Brits. He is popular and athletic and has no trouble assimilating himself into the matches, even if older kids try to wedge him out.

Not Pete.

It's not that Pete is nonathletic or unpopular. It is dangerous to label a kid so young. Any kid, for that matter.

"I don't have anyone to play with," he whispered.

Elise and I immediately challenged this notion. I told him the day I came to school and surprised him, I saw him on the playground playing with two little girls, and Elise asked him who else is on the playground that he might ask to play with.

"There's nothing to do, but make footprints in the mud on the slide."

I don't believe that Peter will always be that kid wandering the edge of the playground by himself. He may not even be that boy now. It's difficult to parse the truth from what little we know about his school day or to know how much of what he tells us is just how tired he is at the end of the day. I suppose it may not matter if that's what his perception is. Does it really matter if one day he plays with one or two kids if he feels as though he has no one to play with?

"What about Louie's sister? Can you play with her?"

I didn't know what else to say, but I refused to let my heart empty. I wasn't going to have the same visceral--and ultimately useless--response I had when I heard kids were picking on him on the bus. I just wish everyone could see how hilarious Pete is.

I already read a few articles online that might help. It's hard to know which behaviors are normal parts of growing up and which are products of our upcoming move from India.

Probably, they are a little bit of everything.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Saddest Boy on Earth

Last night, I got home from work a little late. I didn't leave the office until 5:30 and--after stopping at the store--it was after 6:00 before I walked in the door.

The usual cacophonous din seemed a little more pitched than normal, as though the molecules in the room where vibrating just a hair faster than they usually do. The house is always crazy when I get home. The boys have usually just gotten home and are unspooling from a long day at school, ditching shoes and stripping socks, dropping backpacks at the door, stomping off to the kitchen for a snack, bowls of Cheerios, chocolate milk, or idly. Maybe it wasn't any crazier than usual. Maybe it was just me.

When we sat down to dinner, the chaos continued. Since school started, dinners have not been the quiet, restorative affair we might want them to be. The times when we all sit down together, catching up on each other's days often disintegrate into fighting over who will give thanks, crying, name-calling, someone lying down in their chair or hiding under the table, dissections of the contents of their plates, refusing to eat, drinking all their milk then asking for water before eating anything, wiping ketchup on their clothes, arguments over eating vegetables, threats to withhold dessert. I don't think this is unusual for families with kids this age.

Peter's school day is long. I don't know how long the day is for kindergartners in the States, but Pete gets on the bus at 7:30, drives an hour to school, goes to class from 8:30 to 3:30, then gets home at 4:40. He has two "specials" a day which can include Indian Studies, Art, P.E., or Music. He has two snacks, three recesses, and lunch in any given day. No wonder he's tired. It makes me completely exhausted just typing it all out.

Add all this to the fact that he is often the first to rise. Pete gets up between 5:00 and 5:30. Many days I get up before him, but every once in awhile, I am woken by the sound of his opening the door to the downstairs or by the swish of him walking in his pull-up or by one of his tiny rooster sneezes.

But even though Pete's school day is long, he gets up early, he comes home exhausted, and he is often surly in the evening, last night, he was more surly than usual. I should have known something was wrong. He snapped at Clementine, "Shut up, baby!" Which, in and of itself, is, sadly, not uncommon, but he was snapping at everyone. He told me he hated me. He may have called me "old man".

Sam told us how annoying Pete is on the bus. Pete told us that Sam never sits next to him. The next thing we knew, Peter burst into tears, crying, "They say I eat off the floor!"

It hit me like a punch to the stomach...that moment when your son is hanging out there and all you want to do is protect him but can't.

One of the older boys teased Peter when he saw him pick something up off the bus floor that he had dropped. The fact that it happened at all makes me sick. Evidently, Sam saw the whole thing happen and didn't come to Pete's defense. We're not raising perfect children, but Sam caught an earful from his mother about what it means to be a big brother.

I didn't know what to say. Transported to having suffered through similar moments at a similar age, I was too stunned to say anything. All I wanted to do was hold Peter, but Elise made me snap out, telling me it wasn't going to do any good to feel sorry for Peter; we had to give him the tools to deal with these situations on his own.

She's right. Of course.

I may not have been the saddest boy on Earth, though sometimes it felt like it. I have to make sure the same fate doesn't befall Peter.