Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

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 the stories, it’s easy to see why. I don’t think she’s forgiven herself for one placement that went very badly, 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

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