Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

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

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