Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

Honesty is the best police?

When I was in junior school, we’d be assigned “cursive writing” practice. The exercise books had short sentences printed in a flowing font, with sets of blank lines below, like a music staff. We’d have to trace the sentences out four or five times in our “neatest handwriting”. We’d sit on long afternoons, a room full of imprisoned medieval scribes, scratching at our books, and risking punishment by alleviating the boredom with furtive conversations.

I remember one of those sentences: “Honesty is the best policy”. I read it out to my neighbour Vijay, thinking it was pronounced “police-y”. As boys do at that age, he crowed at me as he corrected my pronunciation. Though I strongly suspected he was right, I insisted my version was correct. As boys do at that age.

Cut to a few years later in a high-school ethics class where I was introduced to white lies as a concept. “What would you do,” our teacher asked, “if you went to someone’s house for dinner, and you didn’t like the food. When they asked you if you liked it, what would you say?”

And so, as you grow older, you hunt for your landing spot on the emotional honesty spectrum. You probably test limits, investigating the shades between frankness and obnoxiousness on one end, and politeness and hypocrisy on the other. A huge part of where you eventually land probably depends on the environment in which you practice your personal honesty. Many of us are forced to a place on the spectrum we’re not comfortable.

We all tell socially sanctioned lies to spare other people’s feelings. Some of us tell too little, and are called difficult. Some of us tell too much, and are called insincere. Some of us naturally want to tell more truths than lies, but grow up in environments where such honesty is punished by people who get upset or angry when they are questioned or challenged. And so we learn to agree even when we disagree. To say, “I’m okay with anything” even though we have a preference. To say we like something even when we don’t, and even when saying we like it means we get more of it.

All those little white lies add up to a grevious dishonesty to oneself. All those feelings that were spared, are a thousand cuts to your own psyche. This is why people-pleasers are often thought to have unpredictable bad tempers. They build up resentment with no outside clues, and while you think they snapped for the tiniest little thing, they see a whole line of tiny things. Half or more of their anger is at themselves for not setting the boundary in the first place.

But here’s an interesting view of this situation. When you don’t stand up to people, and when you don’t hold them accountable for their views or behaviours, you diminish them. Imagine you love a restaurant for its food and gracious service and go there all the time. Then one day, the service is bad enough to ruin your evening. As a people pleaser, you might tell yourself, “Maybe it’s an off day. I won’t say anything.”

Fair enough. But what if the service is bad the next time, and the next? What would make you go back again and again, and not say anything?

We’re told from a very young age that honesty is a good and desirable trait. Then we learn that honesty is far more complex than “don’t steal and don’t lie”. And today, 35 years after that cursive-writing class, I still don’t understand the rules, and still don’t know where to land on that emotional honesty spectrum.

First published in Gulf News, November 7, 2017

Disaster protection that fits under your bed!

Let me tell you about a “2017 Holiday Catalog” that appeared in our mailbox one recent morning. Living as we do, about five hours from two recent disasters (the shooting in Vegas, and the wildfires in Santa Rosa), the timing of this delivery was even more weighted than it would have been in this, as they say, “current political climate”.

The catalogue is from a company called 4Patriots and its main product is Food4Patriots survival rations that last up to 25 years. “Disaster Protection That Fits Under Your Bed!” is one of the first headlines, for a 4-week supply of 140 servings of items such as Traditional Fettucine Alfredo and Blue Ribbon Creamy Chicken Rice, dehydrated and packed for Mylar pouches. “The same technology NASA uses to protect astronauts!” Not the dehydration, the Mylar.

Towards the back of catalogue are other survival items such as solar generators, water filters, and even a military-grade EMP bag to protect electronic equipment from an electromagnetic pulse attack. Both catalogue and website are tantalisingly non-committal about the politics behind this venture, but a video on the website confirms your educated guesses.

In the video, the political left comprises either a bunch of lawless rioters, or a drift of precious snowflakes. Obama was the worst thing to happen to America. Poor Trump is just misunderstood.

“There’s a perfect storm brewing,” says the voiceover. “And once all hell breaks loose, only the strong and self-reliant will survive.”

And the secretive too. The video frequently stresses that your survival-food stockpile must be covert. Once the mobs are rampaging through the streets, looting and burning, they mustn’t know that you have stocks of dehydrated Heartland’s Best Mashed Potatoes at home. Viewers are assured that the food will be shipped in anonymous boxes, with the pouches stored in gray plastic totes that can slip under your bed, or on top of a cupboard.

Throughout is a thread of racism, at once subtle and blatant. For example, while talking about Katrina, a short clip of a crying white, blonde woman is followed by shots of largely black crowds awaiting relief, and the voiceover warning of “anguished families left with no choice but to pour into the nearest crowded criminally infested FEMA camp”.

Images of black looters and rioters are repeated through the video, while all the customers or potential customers of Food4Patriots are white. There are references to the voiceover speaker’s Vietnam veteran status, and an emotional play on being there for your (white) family. There’s a list of fact citations below the video. This isn’t a chest-thumping, gun-waving anarchist’s cookbook. It’s carefully orchestrated, and designed to appeal to the more educated right-winger—at least ones who are prepared to pay $497 for a 3-month supply of nutrition in pouches.

The effect is one of an eating-disorder made external. If food-related pathology is all about the one thing you can control, the food hoarding offers the semblance of control over a world that many conservatives feel left out of. The end of the video asks you to imagine the peace of mind your covert food stock will offer, even as your local grocery store is being stripped bare, as if by “locusts”.

Baked into the video is a pandering to a white fear of being overrun by the lawless coloureds, and a promise that with a little money spent, this diversifying, global world can become cosy and safe again. It seems to almost welcome the apocalypse, so that, as the world falls to pieces, you can boil some water and make yourself and your family a pouch of Granny’s Home Style Potato Soup.

First published in Gulf News, October 24, 2017

A race experience

“Anyone want any Miami Dolphins merchandise? I have houseful of the stuff to give away.”

I know nothing about sports, so assumed our instructor’s favourite team had just lost a game. “Do you understand what happened? I don’t. I’m giving it all away—its going for free.”

Someone in the otherwise silent room laughed and said, “No way”.

“This would never happen in NASCAR,” said the instructor.

The one vocal person in the room made a “hear hear” type comment, and the realisation glinted. This wasn’t about game results, it was about “take a knee”; NFL athletes refusing to stand for the American national anthem.

“And this happened in England! We’re showing our weakness abroad.”

My wife was at a race experience that was a birthday gift from close friends. I was there as spectator, and we thanked our friends several times over the day, not just because she got to rocket an Indy-500-style car for several laps around an actual circuit, but because it pulled us out of the house on a Sunday, to do something we’d normally never have considered.

But class hadn’t begun well. As I realised what the instructor was referring to, I said to my wife, “Really? We’re talking about this here?” The stranger next to me gave me a sympathetic smile. I readied to shout out a suggestion that we stick to racing this morning, but either the instructor read the room (he was a long way from Texas), or had run out of fuel, and he moved on to the business at hand.

Showing weakness abroad? On the contrary, considering how jingoistic the US is, I think these players showed tremendous strength. It takes courage to do something that makes a stadium boo at you, something that may adversely affect your career, that exposes you to online and live harassment, and might even put you in physical danger.

A flag and anthem are symbols, and presumably immutable. What the symbol stands for, however, depends on the person viewing it. National symbols aim to represent big truths, universal ideals. It’s easy to belittle someone who doesn’t get to their feet for their national anthem, but what if they’re holding their country to a higher standard? What if, to them, their nation doesn’t match the glorious truths contained in flag and anthem, and are demanding that it should?

When you hold a country (or even a person) accountable for their actions and choices, you are giving them the chance to be everything they can be. In toxic systems, whether societies, offices, or families, we’re taught to not question, to abide by the code of shame. Don’t question institutional racism. Don’t tell the abusive boss to stop insulting employees. Don’t tell the tantrum-throwing family member that’s not how adults ask for compliance. Every system has its flags and anthems, the symbols you are not allowed to question without being called a traitor.

When an athlete is accused of disrespect, or anti-national behaviour, the underlying message is that it’s easy to do what they’re doing, and that cleaving to majority principles requires great depth of character. In truth, questioning and pushing back against a toxic system (or least a system a person believes is toxic) demands huge personal resources, not just to swim upstream, but to deal with the outcome if the system isn’t ready for change; to deal with being a villain for trying to do the right thing.

I would be proud to take that Miami Dolphins merchandise off that instuctor, and by not telling him that, I didn’t find the courage to #takeaknee in that room.

First published in Gulf News, October 10, 2017

A Rottweiler rescue

The kennels of the Rottweiler rescue are in an industrial section of a town in the northern valleys of the Greater Los Angeles Area. Peeping over the trees in the area where you meet the dogs, is a line of car seats sitting high up in the automobile junkyard next door. A couple of doors down is the boxer rescue, and then the Weimaraner rescue. Directly across the street is a kennel devoted to small dogs.

This breed specificity on a single street should give you an idea of the scale of canine abandonment in this region.

When my wife and I met B. the representative of the Rottie rescue, we recognised a fellow “people optional” soul. She seems to devote her life to these dogs, arriving at the kennels at 4am to get them cleaned out before her day begins. A week later, she was at the kennels at 2am to have them done before she met us at the trainer’s by 8.

B. has a long process of approval before you can adopt from her, and after you hear some of stories, it’s easy to see why. I don’t think she’s forgiven herself for one placement that went bad, and is clearly deeply attached to all of the dogs in her care.

Our own eventual adoptee is a lovely chap called Diego. The first two and a half years of his life were spent on a tiny patio with an owner who used to beat him a lot. The next three and half were at the rescue where he was rehabilitated from a dog too fearful to be even approached, to the person he is now–nervous and hyper-alert certainly, but ready to start trusting.

The stories of cruelty get, and deserve, attention, but the stories of kindness gone wrong are more pervasive, more insidious. I’ve touched upon this issue several times here, but our recent exposure to the underbelly of pet dog world has made me even more sensitive to it.

Here in the land where dogs are pampered beyond belief, is an inevitable underworld of the rejects, fallouts, abandonments, and simply misplaced. When you walk the humane societies and rescue organisations you pass kennel after kennel of healthy, beautiful dogs in every shape and size (but a lot of them pitbull shaped).

In a post-Cesar Milan world, there has been a move from his traditional alpha-dog pecking order training to the world of clicker training and positive reinforcement. The problem with subscribing to a philosophy wholesale is the assumption that it must apply to every situation. Not every dog is suited to the gentle encouragement of positive reinforcement, and it’s difficult to apply consistently.

A dog professional recently said to me, “We’re seeing a lot of dogs needing to be euthanised because of positive reinforcement done wrong.”

In my brief poll of professionals who are exposed to a wide range of dog personalities, such as at a shelter, or dog day care, they have all said the same thing. It depends. Every dog is different, so don’t subscribe to any one methodology.

You might think a nervous dog like Diego would do well with gentle positive reinforcement. But guess what, as he settles and gains confidence, he is turning out to be what I call a “cuddle bulldozer”, managing to combine a beguiling sweetness with a heavily muscled pushiness. He needs a firm hand.

And so, we welcome another damaged personality into a household filled with personalities damaged by intentions good and bad. Sometimes we subject each other to our messes, but in the end, we’re all there for each other, hand in paw.

First published in Gulf News, September 26, 2017

What has audio got to do with tea?

Freelance copywriting takes you to some strange places. I’ve written film scripts that teach bedside manner to newly employed nurses. Brochures for a commercial shrimp farm. The copy that was etched in glass at the entrance to a fancy restaurant. Today, I’m writing content for a B2B specialty tea company, and a high-end audio dealership.

I’m struck by the similarities. Both are specialised luxury markets with their own jargon, trade shows, and range of associated brands you’ve never heard of. Both are focussed on purity and quality, and have an appeal that’s at once robust and rarified.

The owner of the tea company told me about how good tea has terrior, just like any other specialised beverage, and spoke with great passion about how a cup of tea is a journey to the plantation. You can taste the soil, the seasons, the drying process. He took me to the tasting room, where the tasters showed me how to slurp the tea off a spoon to properly taste it, though “slurp” doesn’t quite describe how little tea is ingested relative to air; “huff” might be a better verb.

Back to audio, take the story of W, the chief listener for a famous American audio brand. Like all truly high-end brands, every unit is listened to before it’s packaged to be sent out of the factory. Yes, every single one, and they’re all heard by W. Someone from the company described it as one of the worst jobs in the world, especially since he has to use the same track for months or years on end for consistency.

The company was bought by a large parent brand which provided its own solder. W listened to a production unit made using the new solder, and deemed the sound so bad that he threatened to leave if they were forced to adopt the stuff. Experienced staff screwed up their eyes and ears, and when they concentrated, could tell that yes, this new unit didn’t sound quite as good. It was barely noticeable to most people, but for W, it was almost painful.

Another time, I watched a speaker designer tweak a system. It sounded pretty good to me, but the designer obviously thought it needed work. While it was playing a track, he went over to a speaker on its stand, picking it up, holding his head right above it. He moved it about, listening to the changing sound as it went forwards, backwards, side-to-side, his movements getting smaller and smaller, until he plopped it down. He did the same with the other speaker and the sound of the system snapped into place, as if the band moved in from playing in the next room.

The owner of the tea company, knowing how much I fetishised high-end audio, worried that that I wouldn’t be interested in the intricacies of his market. But intricacies are fascinating in themselves. I’ve learned a lot, not just about tea, but shadow markets we’d never encounter as regular consumers. It’s like a playgoer being allowed to peep backstage. My most treasured find from the specialty tea industry, though, is this phrase: “the agony of the leaves”. It is used to describe the unfurling, dancing action of tea leaves when hot water is poured over them. It’s the phenomenon that’s used for blooming teas, those hand-tied balls that blossom as they steep.

The agony of the leaves. My delight with it is not just that it’s uncomfortably vivid, but that an effect I’ve barely even noticed is an event with a name; a thought as mind-blowing as knowing that solder has a sound.

First published in Gulf News, September 12, 2017

Stop apologising for your cuisine

I know too many Indians who apologise for Indian food. They apologise for it being too spicy, or too smelly, or too sweet, or too much eaten with the hands. Someone I know regularly pontificates about how we Indians “overcook” all our vegetables, turning them into mush. This is a notion I find offensive on a couple of levels.

The first is that a proper home-cooked Indian meal, North or South, East or West, features a range of textures and cooking levels. Plenty of vegetables are either raw or not heavily cooked, whether as the side salads kachumber or kosumbari (which even features raw lentils), or the vegetable dish poriyal.

But sure, let’s allow that since we live in the tropics, most dishes feature long-cooked ingredients. To suggest that these ingredients are “overcooked” is to suggest that there’s a global accepted level of cooking for all vegetables—and that the Western standard of lightly cooked, still crunchy vegetables is somehow “correct”, anything else is either over- or under-done.

I realise though, it’s unfair of me to suggest this is a “Western” standard. I just read that it is, in fact, specifically a classical French standard, in an article titled “When to Cook Your Vegetables Long Past ‘Done’” in The New York Times Magazine. It was written by the star chef du jour Samin Nosrat, whose book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat has rightly become an instant classic.

In the article she tells the story of lightly cooking some beans as an apprentice at a trattoria in Italy, only to discover they were actually to be cooked for over two hours, reducing to a delicious softness. Nosrat writes that the blanch-and-cool technique makes for great looking plates and, “Long-cooked foods, on the other hand, fall firmly into the ‘‘ugly but good’’ camp of the Tuscan cucina povera, where flavor far outshines looks.”

David Chang, the chef who lives up to the cliché of rock star status, regularly posts on Instagram under the “uglydelicious” hashtag, acknowledging that some of the best-tasting dishes are the least photogenic. Fine-dining hasn’t been left out of the general cultural movement towards becoming more inclusive, less snobbish, and far more informal, and its been fun watching offal, fat, “long-cooked” vegetables and many ugly things that ethnic or peasant cultures have long known to be delicious, become mainstream. Or at least, fashionable.

When eating is becoming more exciting every day, it’s painful to watch when people become entrenched in a perceived right or wrong way. There are few things more tiresome than a diner at your table delivering criticism, not because the dishes aren’t executed well, but because they aren’t cooked in a familiar way. It’s especially disheartening to cook for people like this, who complain and leave piles of uneaten food not because they genuinely dislike a certain flavour or texture, but simply because it’s different. I have had to repeatedly cook for someone who, with no knowledge of the cuisine behind a particular dish I’ve spent hours cooking, tells me I should have used a pressure cooker, or added spices, or seasoned with vinegar, even though none of these suggestions have a place in the history or culture of the dish. Can you imagine using a pressure cooker for American barbecue?

In that sense, pledging blind allegiance to your country’s food and cooking methods is as ridiculous as apologising for it. Nobody anywhere overcooks or undercooks anything, and everything is delicious. It’s only your dislikes that limit the world.

First published in Gulf News, August 29, 2017

The return of cooking over wood

I’m standing in the sun in a sweaty T-shirt and hiking hat, my hands are blackened, and charcoal smoke gets in my eyes as I lift a lid and stir a bubbling dish. The scene makes me remember my aunt in Dubai who is an amazing cook. One of her many signature dishes is “handi mutton”, a slow-cooked lamb or goat dish named after the round-bottomed vessel it’s made in. As integral to the recipe as the meat itself, is the fact that it’s cooked outdoors over wood. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or if a sandy wind is blowing: handi mutton is not handi mutton if made indoors on the gas stove.

My aunt says there’s a special energy and magic when the dish is cooked over wood. It isn’t just that smoke gets into the pot and flavour the ingredients—there was something more that was imbued by this ancient cooking process.

I have long dreamed of heading out into the backyard to cook like this. Not barbecue or grilling, cooking methods understood to be over smoke and under sun, but regular cooking: a chicken curry maybe, perhaps even a long-cooked daal. Recently, with guests due for the weekend, I took a meat curry recipe outside the house to be cooked in a cast-iron wok over a charcoal fire.

I saw what my aunt was saying. Food seems to understand wood fire, and cooking over one feels less like a fight between food and flame, and more like a collaboration. Recipes cooked over wood inspire you to do everything right, such as toasting spices and hand grinding them. As you cook, the sun shines down into the pan, a breeze blows over it. The fire rises then ebbs, the smoke swirling in to check on every step. The cook’s rhythm too, slows and eases. My aunt would sit, sometimes in the blazing heat of a Dubai day, and spend a couple of hours just getting the base ingredients cooked down to that perfect caramelised unctuousness. She knew from the sounds alone when to adjust the flame or stir the ingredients. It took a good part of the day, but when ready, handi mutton was not just delicious, but somehow deeply “right”.

While I had minor changes for the next round with my wood-fired curries, they had the same rightness to them. I loved how they were held together by a deep charcoal flavour, giving eaters a sense of the flame that had cooked their food.

I’m sure you could quantify this magic, and identify how it’s a combination of the right kind of radiant heat delivery with no hot spots, an envelope of hot air, and of course that flavoring smoke. I’m sure you could find that a cook who takes the time to cook over wood has committed to a certain level of care and attention. That being outside makes it harder to be distracted by televisions and sofas. An utterly rational look at the “magic” of cooking over wood would probably attribute it to novelty, heat distribution, extra attention, and finally, some flavour from the smoke itself.

“We used to cook everything like this,” my wife’s mother observed. Not even a generation later, the economic and infrastructural necessity of cooking over wood is a fashionable, Instagrammable, conscious choice to slow down and live “analogue”. And for a few hours, even though I’m thinking about the right hashtag for my cooking photos, it works. Somewhere in between frying the onions and finishing the recipe with a traditional black vinegar, I was actually happy, and I think my dishes knew.

First published in Gulf News, August 15, 2017

Cars don’t cause accidents, car drivers do

When we moved into our new house, I joined the local community on Nextdoor.com. It’s a good way to find out what’s happening in the area, whether learning of local businesses, or being warned about car theft, coyotes, and door-to-door solicitors.

I don’t participate in online discussions, but recently when the neighbours began complaining loudly about the cyclists passing through on Saturday mornings who don’t stop at stop signs, I had to step in.

Let me tell you first about our community here in Azusa in the Greater Los Angeles Area. We are near the base of a major road into the San Gabriel mountains. Because it’s winding and beautiful, it’s a favourite of all kinds of road users, notably sportsbike and sportscar owners. Weekend mornings especially echo with the screams of inline fours, the blats of V-twins, and the roars of large car engines spitting hot poisonous gases down open exhaust pipes. Life near the Highway 39 must be like living at the race track.

Even on the inner roads, life is given over completely to cars. People drive in and out of these neighbourhoods as if in a state of permanent emergency. Residents have to put up signs saying, “Drive as if your children lived here” and pull flourescent speed limit warning signs onto the road that are shaped like children holding up red flags. Children don’t play, ride, skateboard or do anything but walk in safety on the pavements.

And so, it seemed ludicrous to me that residents were so bothered by a few Lycra-clad riders who fly through every Saturday morning, yes, not always obeying the stop signs. The inconvenience of a peloton passing through in near silence for 20 seconds seemed so insignificant compared with the constant warzone caused by motor vehicles.

Car drivers seem to feel anger utterly out of proportion with the actual inconvenience a cyclist causes, and this imbalance is in the very language we use about accidents. Victim blaming is commonplace, and popular bike blogger BikeSnobNYC often points out how cyclists crash into people, not cycles (i.e. the person is responsible), but cars have accidents all by themselves all the time. “Car plows into market crowds.” “Taxi jumps curb and hits pedestrians”.

As I write this, on my Twitter feed are reactions to the story of a child on a bicycle who in the headline “collided with a dump truck”. Apparently the dump truck ran over the child, so the child collided with the truck the way a gunshot victim collides with a bullet. And then the inevitable statement that the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet. Let me be clear about this one. If you are run over by a dump truck, a helmet is not going to save you. There are a few clear circumstances when helmets can save your life, but many, many, many permutations where it really doesn’t matter that you had a foam hat on your head. If the details of the crash aren’t clear, mentioning that the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet immediately suggests that he or she is somewhat to blame. The article did not contain a line about how, for example, the dump truck driver hadn’t had a sobriety test, because after all, he is innocent until proven guilty,

I know many people will read this story and think, “The child shouldn’t have been out on the streets” or “He should have been wearing a helmet”. If you are one of them, let me suggest a new line of thought. How about, “Our streets need to be safe so that our children can ride their bicycles without being killed by motor vehicles”?

First published in Gulf News, August 1, 2017

Life and death in the garden

I have a monster in the garden. A warm, bristly monster of my own creation that I feed regularly.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of “lasagna gardening”, more accurately called sheet composting. It’s especially useful when you want to get rid of the lawn, but can’t be bothered to cut out and transport all that sod. You cover the grass in layers of newspaper, and then alternate piles of green and brown stuff. I use the grass clippings, and dry leaves and flowers that Fidel and Sergio leave in our green yard-waste bins every Wednesday.

Once formed, this pile of dead stuff seems to come alive. It gets body-warm inside, and a cloud of what look like large fruit flies hover over it. Lift a corner of the pile and peek underneath to see earwigs and pill bugs running for cover. Every time I’ve tended to it, a large emerald-green beetle appears from somewhere inside, and buzzes about bossily, as if telling me where to direct the water. I’m told earthworms gather in the ground below, making it easy to dig into. The pile itself exudes an uncomfortable feeling of person, like when you walk too close to a store mannequin.

Every Wednesday, as I get more materials, I either pile higher, or extend the monster. Once you have a few alternating layers, the idea is to add soil and just leave it for six months to decompose and turn into a dark, rich base for your vegetable or flower garden. But even before it supports plants, the busyness in and around the monster is addictive, a process of life fueled by the dying of its ingredients.

When I was a child, we visited my father’s friend on his estate in the hills near our home in South India. He had a book on lawn care, and I was the sort of child who would read a book like that cover-to-cover (not specifically because it was lawns, but because I’m drawn to obscure how-to’s. I’d have been just as rapt if it was knitting or motorcycle repair or ship-in-a-bottle building). I was puzzled and fascinated by how sod could be cut out in squares with a spade, and rolled up, to be later put back in place, or replanted elsewhere.

Today, not only do I know all too well how you can cut squares of sod, but also how much sweat is involved, and how incredibly heavy even a couple of square feet of lawn is. Not far from the monster, I’m cutting away the lawn to start the garden from soil again. Several times, I’ve staggered from there to the monster with rolls of sod to place them upside down on the beast as the next lasagna layer. Gardening, it turns out, is hard work. I’m not complaining; I’m actually pleased it’s a lot more physically demanding than I expected. We’ve seen people in the movies digging six-foot-deep graves so often, that even though we know it must be harder than it looks, it’s a shock to dig even six inches into the soil. A hole seems to generate twice its own volume in dug earth, piles so heavy that my old wheelbarrow simply refused to move them.

For the first time since childhood, I regularly have earth under my fingernails, and mud on my clothes. In the middle of writing this piece, I popped out to spread some warm grass clippings onto the new section of the monster, now covering the area of a large double bed. I swear I could feel it breathing.

First published in Gulf News, July 18, 2017

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