Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

When a tree falls in a backyard, everyone hears it

Living in Southern California, we’ve had many visitors from Australia who exclaim in surprise as we drive back from the airport, “This looks a lot like home!”

One big, or rather many big reasons, are the eucalyptus trees. They aren’t native of course, but have been here so long that it’s complicated. The “gum trees” AKA koala buffets first came in the 1850s, during the California gold rush, to replace native oaks and other hardwoods that had been chopped down for buildings and other uses.

There’s a line of four eucalyptus trees on our property that are likely to be over 100 years old. They were probably planted during the eucalyptus boom of the early 1900s, when entrepreneurs thought they’d cash in on this fast-growing hardwood tree. That bubble burst when they realised that eucalyptus tends to chip and crack, so it’s not good for furniture. As firewood, it burns hot and long, but gums up chimneys with a coating that’s nearly impossible to remove.

One recent hot afternoon, one of those trees came crashing down, a result of root rot. With an over 40-foot-high double trunk from a base over six feet across, it laid down a lot of wood.

The eye-popping bill for removal made more sense when we saw how much work, how many people, and how many truckloads it involved. Eucalyptus wood is dense, so even the smaller rounds were a struggle to roll onto the trailer. Watching the workmen slog over two days, a few thoughts occurred to me. The first was a reminder at how controlled our environments are—that even a seemingly nature-filled backyard needed hours of work to keep it looking more like backyard and less like forest floor. Just one tree had to fall for us to require two working days of the services of a team of men with chainsaws, a large truck, an SUV and trailer, a woodchipper (a truly terrifying machine), and a machine on tracks known as a stump grinder.

We kept only a fraction of the tree as firewood, but I spent a good amount of time stacking logs where they will dry for the next six months. The work made me think about about how incredibly productive the land is for a family unit. Sure, it was a big tree, but looked at another way, an area of ground about the size of a bedsheet provided us enough recreational heating and cooking fuel for several years. People who start kitchen gardens have much the same realisation: finding that even a small patch of ground yields a bounty that’s hard to keep up with.

And finally, as I watched a giant tree disappear in two days, with the lawn neatly raked of all wood chips and leaves, I thought again about the work ethic in this country. I’d first consciously noticed it when employed at a shop that made mounted canvasses for artists. Nobody walked slowly on the job; they all raced from location to another. One of the new hires would deliver wood frames to us, and then actually run back to his post. The pay was hourly, so it’s not as if working faster would make them more money.

Similarly in our backyard, the team worked relentlessly. Sometimes there was laughter and banter, but they were largely quiet as they rent the hot afternoon with the roar of chainsaws, and hefted tons of wood onto truck and trailer. And then they left, leaving a quiet gap in the sky, and little for us to do but promise we’d fill it with a fine specimen of a native flora species.

First published in Gulf News, July 4, 2017

Plotting the return of manufacturing

At the recent Los Angeles Audio Show, an industry rep laughingly described a pair of wireless active speakers he’d seen at one of the rooms. “They’re powered by 18V batteries just like the ones you get at Home Depot for power tools. Right there, sticking out of the back.”

It’s not that he thought it a bad idea. If you must use batteries, he continued, it’s great that they’re a non-proprietary design, but surely the execution should be little less Ryobi?

Another rep, a long-time industry insider, seemed to step back a little by drily observing, “When your customer wants totally wireless speakers, your customer really doesn’t want totally wireless speakers.”

It’s true that a company can be too attentive, and perhaps forget how equating its luxury brand to a cordless drill can hurt it in the long run. Tone it down a little from there, and you have the all-in-one revolution in high-end audio. Reacting to the idea that customers want ease and convenience, many companies offer democratised products with as few boxes and cables as possible. They have slick apps, new streaming technologies, and lifestyle design touches, such as interchangeable speaker grilles in various colours.

Just a day before I write this, the Los Angeles Times had another article on the death of malls, and with it, the possible death of retail as we know it. Over and again in these articles you see glimmers of hope that retail will not die altogether, but move into a space of hand-made, curated, personalized, customizable. It means then that the very obduracy of high-end audio could be its selling point. That democratized all-in-one gear merely moves these luxury brands into a highly competitive lesser market.

What relevance does all this have anyway? Well, if you’re going to talk about bringing manufacturing back to a developed country, the niche luxury markets may be your best hope. Look at Shinola, the brand that’s promising to bring manufacturing back to Detroit. A skilled workforce of former automobile assemblers, welders, and upholsterers, now makes watches, leather goods, turntables, and bicycles. Shinola’s watches are proudly hand-assembled, with hand-stitched leather straps. These are all decidedly analogue products, sold under a name that’s a World War II shoe polish brand. (I know, I know, “Shinola” sounds like a Taiwanese knock-off store on eBay.)

Shinola has built its brand on the story of its manufacture. Beautiful photos show workers assembling turntables at a brightly lit factory. Product pages for watches unabashedly show the movements, and one photo shows a worker assembling a calendar function, using tweezers to pick up tiny parts from a tray.

“Of all the things we make, the return of manufacturing jobs might just be the thing we’re most proud of,” says the home page of the website. The Shinola story doesn’t resort to the cheap trick of jingoism, and by all accounts their approach is really working. Manufacturing jobs and bicycles… that’s some great bipartisan branding right there.

Surely niche luxury brands in dying sectors can jump onto this narrative? So many audio companies are primed to do so. Some of high-end audio’s most storied brands old and new are American designed and, often manufactured: Audio Research, Basis Audio, Cardas Audio, Grado Labs, Klipsch, Magnepan, Pass Labs, Rockport Technologies, Vandersteen, Wilson Audio, YG Acoustics, Zu Audio. I’m picking just a few names from across the alphabet.

Digging in and telling a “roll up our sleeves” story (look for Shinola’s #rollupoursleeves) has got to be better than sticking drill batteries into your product and pretending that extraneous cables are the root of all your problems.

First published in Gulf News, June 20, 2017

Hitch your leash over a hydrant and walk away

I was at a party where a dog played with a football. I got the ball off him, and joined the game in a way you could consider teasing. I hid the ball behind me, pretended to throw it, unexpectedly threw it in a different direction, and then, when I got it back, put my weight on the ball as the dog scrabbled to dislodge it. The dog’s ears were up, and his eyes shone as he jumped and feinted, barking and huffing in excitement. I let him have the ball every now and then, but infrequently and unpredictably.

A guest watched. “Poor thing,” she whined, “don’t do that, let him have the ball, poor thing, don’t tease him.”

She was obviously illiterate to canine body language. Anybody even semi-conversant would have seen the dog was thrilled by the game. His brain worked as hard as his body as he read my movements, and tried to outmanoeuvre me.

This “oh poor helpless little thing” attitude towards dogs is common, and it sets my teeth on edge. As we’ve pieced together our own dog’s story (he was adopted after being abandoned on a highway), I’m convinced he’s come from a loving household with no rules. He had an anxious, dominating energy: grabbing objects and running around with them, lunging for food, and testing boundaries by leaping at you in barely veiled aggression. The first time I gave him a treat, he almost took off my fingers.

Today, with a life of play and boundaries, especially around food, he has a calm, loving energy that a recent houseguest described as unique and special. And yet, my wife and I are often told to lay off as we enforce rules about rough play, food begging, or jumping.

“Let him be, he’s just being a dog” is the line we’ve heard in various forms. (Some of these people have children–I wonder how they’d react to: “Oh come on, he’s just a child, let him eat all that ice cream! Poor thing, don’t tease him–give him the whole carton!”)

I sometimes play a game with my dog that can seem cruel, especially if you know he has a fear of being abandoned in strange places. On a walk, I hitch him to a fence or fire hydrant, and keep going. At first, I couldn’t go two steps without him yowling in outrage and anxiety. Gradually, I was able to get further, and today, he’ll let me go out a long way, and when I turn and stop, he’ll sit until I return. I won’t say he likes the game, but I have taught him that I always come back. He is now much more relaxed at new places, or when I have to leave him in unusual situations, such as at the vet, or outside a store. Reducing a life sentence of chronic anxiety is not cruel.

As I work to overcome my own engine idle of tenseness, I see almost debilitating anxiety in so many people in my life. Anxiety makes you a walking “Worst of…” album of yourself. When it comes to connecting, it’s as if you’re tuned into a screeching high-frequency carrier signal modulated from a distance by your actual personality. It’s nearly impossible to bond with others over the racket. Finding a way to hitch your leash over a fence post and walk away, giving Anxious You a chance to breathe, and learn you’re not going to leave is a complex, even brutal process. However, it’s so important to realise that you’re no “poor, helpless thing” and that short-term kindness is often long-term cruelty.

First published in Gulf News, June 6, 2017

Cooking at the bicycle kitchen

It’s with laughing self-awareness that my friend B. and I speak of how the ritual of acquisition is often more the point than need; pride of possession more relevant than regular use.

Though he has three beautiful steel bicycles, it was almost biological inevitability that led him to drive over a 100 miles early one holiday morning, and snatch up a bargain Craigslist offer of a vintage Japanese steel bicycle. It needed to be shipped, so a day later we were in downtown Los Angeles at the Bicycle Kitchen co-operative, with the bicycle on a repair stand, ready to be stripped down.

As much as you hear that America equals the automobile, there’s great dependence on bicycles here. Large cities still use bicycle messengers as couriers, and they form a gritty subculture with its own visual language of minimalist bicycles and large backpacks. Vast numbers of people too poor, or too undocumented, or once too impaired at the wrong time, to drive cars, use bicycles to commute. Visit a restaurant in America and look around at the parking lot railings, peep down the alleyways, or peer over the back wall to see how dining out wouldn’t function without armadas of cheap Mongoose’s, Motobecanes, and Giants.

Bracketing these two co-op using groups are the shiny hipsters on one end, and homeless people on the other. Even car-crazy LA has tribes who choose expensive single-speeders over automobiles. For them, co-ops serve as meeting grounds and even party venues. Many homeless people depend on bicycles to carry their possessions, or to ferry them to and from hidden encampments. The cheap parts and pay-as-you-can co-op is vital to their lives.

The Bicycle Kitchen on a late weekday morning reflected this mix. There was us, the self-admitted “wannabe hipsters” working on what would become the fifth (or was it sixth?) bicycle in a collection. On the repair stand next to ours was semi-crazed man with a homeless air, struggling to remove a stuck seatpost from a cheap mountain bike. A young man asked a volunteer, “Will you be my friend today?” because he needed help setting up his new cycle. A girl with a nice mixte bicycle talked to us about her recent cycling trip to France.

The friendly dog, I realised, belonged to a homeless man who reassembled his bike-based push caravan that featured a little carpeted tent for the dog hanging off the handlebars. In contrast, the co-op owner, with his formal shirt, neat hair and glasses, looked more like a Silicon Valley executive than the tattooed, dreadlocked figure who’d have blended better into the piles of oily cogs, and boxes bristling with handlebars and frames.

Payment at the co-op, if you don’t buy any parts, is a suggested $7 an hour (“This is a generous donation,” said the owner), but they will take anything you want to pay. Or not. There are a few such co-ops around LA, with names such as Bikerowave and Bike Oven.

In my world, bicycling is more about saving grams on multi-thousand-dollar frames, training to within millimetres of your life, and riding in exotic destinations, than about standing next to crazy guy swinging a hammer at his seatpost just inches away from your head. My friend B. has a talent for connecting with cities in surprising and authentic ways. Whether Los Angeles, Bangalore, Hyderabad, or Singapore, I’ve found that his version of the city is always captivating, and we are sometimes too critical of the acquisatory zeal of our hobbies, forgetting how, without them, we would pass through like puppets in front of a backdrop.

First published in Gulf News, April 25, 2017

Let’s cut the funds for beauty

California is blooming. It’s spring after a series of winter storms that pulled us out of drought, and there are flowers everywhere. In gardens, riverbeds, the desert, on the mountains, on freeway embankments. Plants that looked dead when we moved into our house two months ago, now look like bouquets. For an all-too-short two weeks, the bare plum tree outside sprung blossoms along its coppery branches, before they fell to make way for green fruit.

Earlier this week, I drove to Point Mugu State Park on the western-most section of the Santa Monica mountains, past popular sections of California’s coast along Santa Monica and Malibu. This is where, the way the land curves, the beaches face due south, regularly confounding tourists looking for a sunset over the waters.

The Santa Monica range ends (or begins?) as rolling green hills adjoined by farmland. The Pacific Coast Highway runs along a rugged coastline here, and the parking lot for the Ray Miller Trailhead isn’t too far into the mountains.

I was here to experience some of the “superbloom” of California’s wildflowers, and the short hike up the ocean-facing hillsides did not disappoint. My favourite is the California poppy, the delicate petalled orange flowers said to have been the source of the name The Golden State.

Later that afternoon, I met my uncle who was in town on business, and we sat at a restaurant in downtown LA. Our server, Sabrina, had given us a cheery, authentically friendly greeting, and my gregarious uncle was soon chatting with her. He makes it a point, he later told me, to engage with people in these troubling political times, and remind them that there’s support and hope.

Sabrina is a filmmaker and is black. She nodded vigorously in recognition of a border crossing story my uncle told, and shared some of her own experiences. I was fascinated by this conscious construction of an interaction that, though engineered, was warm and authentic. As someone still more shy than not, it had never occurred to me to drive these fleeting social situations. I usually just let them take the path of least resistance.

That evening though, at a local Thai restaurant, the attempted connection fell flat. The Thai server mentioned that she couldn’t handle too much spice these days, and my uncle joked that it was the fault of the administration who were dealing in too much spice themselves. The server semi-sarcastically said, “Oh yeah, they’ve got in and changed our DNA” at which the matter was dropped, and we skated on safe waiter-diner superficialities.

It seemed that the young, fashionable, second-generation (at my guess) Thais, who are running a surprisingly good hole-in-the-wall restaurant out in an unfashionable arm of LA’s galaxy are Trump supporters. Or at very least, pointedly neutral.

As California’s blooms welcome the end of years of drought, there are threats from the center to punish the state financially for its political leanings, whether it’s removal of support for sanctuary cities, or changing tax laws. Most of the Trump voters I know, supported him in the belief that their bank accounts would be fatter under his administration.

I thought about this as I walked among the wildflowers in a state park that sits on hillsides worth millions of dollars in real estate. It will be just another couple of weeks before the flowers are gone, and soon after, the heat of summer will turn the hills brown again. I try to imagine looking at the world through the lens of my bank account, and it scares me that this way, beauty is as transient and fragile as a field of petals.

First published in Gulf News, April 11, 2017

The Wild West in the attic

One recent weekend, I donned some old clothes, pulled on a headlamp and dust mask, and went reverse spelunking in the attic. I was attempting to run Ethernet cable from the router to my audio system, keeping as much of it hidden as possible.

My wife came up the ladder, and stuck her head into the space. She looked wide-eyed at the snowdrifts of blown-in insulation, the cabling, the wood joists studded with tiny golden globules of resin, the bronchial ductwork. She marveled that the home we lived in at the bottom of the ladder was mere epidermis. “Just under the surface it’s no more than a pioneer log cabin,” she said.

Sitting there, covered in the fluff of R-44 insulation, and breathing heavily through my dust mask, I chose to extend that to a metaphor for America itself. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Just as canyons are evidence of rivers of old, there is much in day-to-day America that’s a reminder that not too long ago, here ran the blood and sweat of the settler life.

Out here in the suburbs of Los Angeles, it seems everybody is self-sufficient. Their garages are filled with enough tools to build small townships. Plumbing, fence building, roof repairing, electrical work–they don’t need a professional for anything. They drive cars that have seen close to 200,000 miles, if engines need a new pistons, the work is done in the driveway. Changing brakes is a morning’s task, no more stressful than I would find changing a spare tyre.

A neighbour helped me contextualise the American fascination with enormous engines. Most performance cars today take a European approach, using smaller engines that are tweaked and tuned to produce higher power. And because they run at high RPM, tolerances need to be tight. “If something goes wrong, there’s nothing you can do at home,” said M, a man who had replaced a camshaft in a Ford truck that morning. “And because they run at such high RPM’s, they don’t last.”

An 8.0 litre pushrod engine on the other hand, does highway speeds at a low 1,800 RPM. With its slack build tolerances, parts are more interchangeable in emergencies. If cylinders fail, you can still limp home on half the engine. The reason beloved American cars are so agricultural, I realised, is directly descended from the dream of driving across a wild and desolate country, and making it to the other side. Or from living so far from services, your life could depend on your car engine coughing to life one deep winter morning.

A friend, on hearing about my attic project, observed that Indian education and upbringing just doesn’t prepare us for manual labour, and nor does it sensitise us to its dignity. Being privileged in an under-privileged country means there’s always somebody to do your work for a few rupees. Why spend the morning crawling through the woodwork, drill in hand, when you could pay someone to do it for you, while you did something perhaps not as noble, but more of the nobility, such as reading a book, watching television, or playing the piano?

In addition, there’s the fear of the unknown, even though learning repairs is no more challenging than figuring out a new computer operating system, or a new recipe. Okay, the stakes are higher. Do manual labour wrong, and lose a finger, fall through the ceiling, or break your house. Luckily, it’s never that difficult or dramatic, and if something were to go wrong in that attic, at least I’ve met the wilderness above our ceiling.

First published in Gulf News, March 28, 2017

Technological nostalgia as healing

Remember this trick from the early days of the cell phone? You call a friend on his landline, and chat with him about plans for the day. As you’re talking, his doorbell rings, and he excuses himself to answer it. He opens the front door, and it’s you.

There’s astonishment and laughter all round, and a salute to how amazing technology is. (You have, of course, made sure to disconnect the call, because such frippery was paid for by the dear minute.)

By the time the Nokia 3310 was launched, this stunt was probably getting stale. Even so, I was surprised to read that the iconic phone was launched as late as 2000. Seventeen years later, the 3310 will be relaunched, taking us back to tiny screens, decent call quality, and long battery life. I’ve never been one for phones, but I loved the 3310, and wasn’t surprised to read of its return.

Apart from novelty and nostalgia, a phone whose battery can last a month on standby, will quickly become a safety back-up. It can be charged and thrown into a glove compartment or bottom of a suitcase at the start of a trip. It can accompany you on hikes where weak signals make your regular phone last only a few hours. And because it’s light, simple, and rugged, it can accompany you on bike rides, beach visits, or even quick dog walks at night, where you don’t want to be waving around an expensive smart phone.

As someone who is interested in products and values that are a deliberate step back in time, it’s fascinating to me that we are already far enough on this ride to return nostalgically to products from a mass digital age. This isn’t like stepping back to vinyl after CD, or to horse-drawn carriages after automobiles (don’t you think horses will come back?). It’s more like returning to the VCD from Blu-Ray, albeit in a way that makes sense.

When we moved to our new home, we packed up our television. And though we’ve been here for over a month, it’s still boxed, and a library has seen use. The television will eventually come out, but I’m seriously considering stopping the streaming service, and returning to renting movies on disc. We’re not alone in finding that having everything at your fingertips is like having nothing at your fingertips. We have frequently spent our entire TV dinnertime scrolling through the thumbnails, unable to settle on anything. And when we do, it’s almost always something mindless, or comfort food that we’ve seen tens of times before.

It’s tempting to be entirely bereft of an idiot box, but realistically, it seems right to at least make the turning on of the television an occasion again. I’m not sure that the relaunch of old mobiles will make phone calls an occasion, but if I had one, I’d look forward to “3310 days”, when I have the ability to text and phone, but am not continually ensnared by a few square inches of black mirror. I’m rapidly becoming as bad as everyone else about my smart phone–needing it near me at all times, and checking it many, many, many times a day.

I began this article with an image of how naively we opened our door to this surprising technology. You might assume I’m closing with a “little did we know” lament about where we’ve come. But I’m actually starting to think that the cycles of fashion are healing mechanisms, and that we have more control over our ways of life than we allow ourselves to believe.

First published in Gulf News, March 14, 2017

Growing up in motels

“Gentle giant” is the best way to describe my new friend. Let’s call him Jim. He is brutally strong, but quiet and shy. He has a distracted, slightly dazed manner, that makes it a surprise when he is usually a step ahead of what you’re asking.

Jim has two children. His son, 15, is autistic. His daughter, 12, is in special education, but is expected to move to regular high school. His wife cares for the children, and Jim is a day labourer. He gets lifting and loading work wherever and whenever he can find it. He can’t save enough money for a downpayment on an apartment, so he and his family go from motel to motel around Los Angeles.

A motel is $320 a week, and the rule is that occupants have to leave every two weeks for two days. That’s when a motel is $85 a night, so most months, Jim pays $1,450 for housing. He says he can find an apartment for $900 a month, but could never save enough for required first and last month up front.

Jim and his daughter were one of the first houseguests in our new home. A couple of months earlier, Jim had been distraught at work, though he tried hard not to show it. I’d given him a ride to the train station near my house, from where he was going to his father’s house to borrow money. I didn’t ask, but I think it was either that, or sleep outdoors. I wanted to help him, but I knew he was proud.

“We’re moving soon, come over one Sunday and help us out at our new house. Consider this an advance,” I told him. I was glad he accepted the cash without taking offence.

This exchange made me think later about how much charity is built into Indian society. Most people employ house help, picking some combination of cleaners, cooks, gardeners, watchmen, and drivers (or, often, all). In addition to a monthly salary, employers pay for employees’ children’s school fees, books, and uniforms. Extra food and hand-me-down clothing are given and accepted with ease. There are regular holiday bonuses in the form of cash and clothes. None of this is notable. To proudly announce that you paid your cook’s son’s school fees would elicit, at best, a “so what, we all do” shrug.

Jim’s story disturbs my wife and I, and a part of us feels guilty for that. After all, Jim’s life would look cushy to many, many people who have crossed our paths. Meat (albeit fast food) for dinner, clothes and shoes, running water, and school! And yet, here we were one recent Sunday, watching Jim eat a giant beef burrito like a man who starves slightly so he can feed his children. We’d just spent untold money on a new house, and sitting at our patio table was a little girl who is growing up in cheap motels around the San Gabriel Valley.

To a day labourer, money in advance is money that won’t buy dinner tonight. As I dropped Jim and his daughter off at their motel not far from my home, he asked me if I could spare a couple of bucks. “I’m so sorry, you gave me money earlier…”

I reached into my wallet and handed Jim an inadequacy that made me feel sick. He thanked me, and said, “Bye Gautam” as he and his daughter got out of the car.

“Bye Gautam,” she called through the rear passenger window in exactly the same way, then followed her father into the bleak Monte Carlo Inn.

First published in Gulf News, February 28, 2017

Remembering ‘The Selfish Giant’

The television was on in the living room of a comfortable home on a recent rainy day in Southern California. As we walked in, the woman of the house looked at the images of the Trump family live at the Presidential inauguration. “Finally, a first family we can look up to,” she said.

I was shocked. I had to go back and replay her statement in my head to confirm what I’d just heard. Now, I can work hard to understand why you may not like Obama’s policies, his politics, or even him as a person, but when it comes to your inability to look up to his wonderful family, I’m puzzled. How is Trump’s family more worthy of your respect? Oh wait, don’t answer–let me just give you a tight-lipped smile, be professional, and get out of here as soon as I can.

The day after the inauguration was one of my lowest in recent memory. While one of the big women’s marches was taking place not 20 miles away, I was among Trump supporters who thought the marches were “stupid”, and the marchers “morons”. As I heard some of the arguments against the march, I felt less angry, and more deeply sad. “Why are these women marching?” asked somebody. “Are they not treated equally in this country?”

I understand that some people think Trump will be good for business, but now, it seemed, this argument was a pre-election cover for agreeing with his other viewpoints too.

“How do you explain the danger of institutional sexism or racism to people who think that the opposition to Trump’s misogyny is personal, like if you ran into him in a lift?” lamented a friend to me on Whatsapp. Another friend was almost annoyingly rational.

“You need to lower your expectations of people,” he said, when I complained to him about some of the pro-Trump arguments I’d heard.

Though potentially patronising in its application, it was good advice. After all, I have no context for the other point of view. I come from a world where people are truly shocked that I actually know Trump supporters, “that too in California”.

“I don’t know anyone who supports that man,” said my mother who lives in India, and for that bit of news, I was grateful.

In my lowering of expectations of other people, I’m still not able to reconcile the woman in the house, nor her husband who chortled about “throwing out the illegals”. Trump’s family decidedly does not fit a conservative ideal the way Obama’s does. There can be no other reason for this person to not be able to look up to the Obama first family, other than that they are black.

I felt disgusted in her presence, but so far, her racism could only be inferred. I’m not sure if I can claim her house to be a hostile work environment and refuse to go back. Today, as I write this, news of Trump’s wall is across the front page. I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s selfish giant, who builds a wall to keep children out of his beautiful garden, only to bring on a perpetual winter. Spring returns when the children sneak in again through a hole in the wall, causing the giant to see the error of his ways, and tear down the boundary. The garden was so much more beautiful and meaningful when it was a part of the larger world, and not an enclave unto itself. The fact that this argument even has to be made today seems like a fairy tale in itself.

First published in Gulf News, January 31, 2017

The second real-estate market

When you buy a house in the US, the public record is changed, and this is a trigger for a whole industry in your mailbox. Some letters are helpful (offering discounts at local supermarkets), and some are outright scams.

There’s a company in California called Local Records Office, that sends business solicitations to new home owners. It charges $89 to furnish a copy of the title deed, something you could get for a few dollars from the actual records office. To be fair to Local Records Office, they clearly say (perhaps after litigation?) that they are not a government agency. Even so, the wording and style of the letter is clearly intended to deceive.

Less egregious, but still annoying, are the ways companies get your attention and make you open their mail. Important Security Document Inside, said one envelope. It contained an offer for a security system subscription. Final Notice About Your Mortgage Papers, said another. It was selling mortgage insurance.

All of these attempts to fool us into engaging, stung all the more, because my wife and I have a clear memory of being duped. We weren’t even new in the US at the time, having come back after two years away. We were looking for rental housing, and because we had a large dog, it was hard to find something suitable. (When you’re renting, “large” is any canine over 10 kg.) We got nervous and signed up for a company that promised to send hand-picked listings over 21 or so days, for a $50 fee. They didn’t email or text the listings; they faxed them. So we had to download a free fax program on a laptop, and dial in every day, to be sent lists of houses to visit.

The list didn’t seem to adhere to any of our requirements. Many said “no pets”, many weren’t in cities we’d asked for. We drove to a few, and some of the houses weren’t on the market. Others were so rundown, we didn’t even stop. And when we navigated the Byzantine rules for getting a reimbursement, I found that I need to have checked into the office every day to be eligible for it.

We’d been properly scammed, and it felt worse because we’d been vulnerable. Coming back to the our new house, it helped that those weren’t the only notices directed at us. The previous owner, a lovely lady in her 70s, had left us handwritten notes all over the house, starting with a big welcome taped to the kitchen backsplash. She explained the workings of various objects, from thermostats to the electric stove. She described the use of the remote controls. She left a list of the neighbours, and made sure the bathrooms all had toilet paper and hand soap.

Ultimately, this was a business deal, and if the financial machinery moved as well as financial machinery can, no more was needed. But there was a connection in this deal that was much bigger than mortgage and home appraisals. For some reason, we bonded with the home owner and she with us, through the medium of the property, in a way that belied the amount of time we’d spent with each other (almost none). Everyone involved could feel it, and the first time we saw the house, my wife cried, because it was over our budget, but she knew right then that this deal was going to happen. We all did, and this makes me think, you can only be duped if you allow it.

First published in Gulf News, January 17, 2017