Thursday, May 31, 2012

More Dallas Days

May 31

Yesterday, I spent the entire day babysitting my eight-year-old niece. She’s the most timid, pixie-like creature and like all children, it doesn’t take too much to make her happy. And like all other children, when they’re there your life kind of revolves around them. The Internet wasn’t working because of the storm last night, so our options in this day and age were somewhat limited. Also fewer opportunities to distract children (how else could I watch TV shows other than Spongebob? Even though I feel that those yellow cartoons could potentially provide evidence for social learning at its worst).

Highlights: letting Maha beat the eggs for my cheese omelet, unlocking the intermediate series in Kinect Adventure games, a treasure hunt that involved the red wise creature holding the last clue that rhymed just enough to elude or impress the eight-year old, making mac ‘n’ cheese in the microwave, walking to the park TWICE, and that really creepy frog that we thought was dead because it was lying on its back, its pasty pale slimy stomach exposed to the cruel world…and then we peered closer at it, it slowly twisted its neck and look up at us with its unblinking black eyes. Right out of a miniature horror movie. Just the thought makes me shudder! Thank goodness it was so tiny! I need to flick off the shivers now.

When bedtime finally rolled along, I thought to myself how I admire parents everywhere. Life these days makes it so easy to be selfish. And that is what independence does to you. It teaches you how to cook, how to clean bathrooms, and pay your bills, to eat healthier and multitask constantly. But it also makes you highly self-involved and what with so many things to do, how do I make time for what you what? Delays in my schedule because of another person’s needs? Changes, adjustments, postponing, cancelling, rearranging? Really? A trait that people used to accept before as part of their existence with other beings is becoming rarer to find.

I find it so difficult when the bus runs late, or I have to accommodate another person’s schedule with mine and that makes me sad. I need to work on this whole huffy-puffy when the pieces don’t fall exactly where I want them to fall attitude.

Anyways, so, back to Dallas. Yesterday night there was an incredible storm. The clouds rolled into their dark arena from all directions, gathered momentum, and then rushed towards one another, crashing and thundering, so loud the walls of the house shook in time with my heart. Then there was the lightning. It made me pause everything, turn off the lights, the TV and stand transfixed in front of the screen door that looks over the backyard. (Thank God for suburban neighborhoods that allow you a view of the sky). And the sky would glow, purple, white, it was so bright I could see the electric current zap down like a rip in the heavens, showing you for a split second a glimpse of another reality. The neighborhood would brighten up like it was early morning and then it was back to midnight. The lightning zigzagged vertically, behind houses, so close and bright I swore it must be striking the house two streets down. And then it would cut across horizontally, branches of electricity reaching out like long fingers.

It was so beautiful I was entranced. I stood there for so long with my camera held at a steady, elbows out, both hands on the device position, my finger half-pressing the button because it really is difficult to capture lightning. It is surprisingly hard to keep one eye shut like that.

Anyways, I was rewarded with a couple of photographs. Nothing compared to the awe of watching the live light show, but I’ll take what I can get.

I like this Texan weather.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Day or Two (even Three) in Dallas

May 30

I have never considered myself a food person. I mean, I like to eat as much as any other average person, and when I’m really hungry then I like to torture myself with thoughts of soft, squidgy chocolate chip muffins or creamy hummus with a hint of lime and thyme. Good meals do make me happy. But it is not like true love. I don’t daydream for hours, or even days about a certain kind of pasta, I don’t spend hours browsing websites (Pinterest!) and salivating over pictures of food that is so pretty it is almost art, or work myself into throes of insanity thinking about gol guppay, till everything else disappears and the paper-thin, fresh, sunlight colored spherical bowls into chickpeas and tangy masala sauce. Nor is the result of food complete satiation, utter ecstasy and replete joy.

That was before I had spent five months in America. St. Louis has a lot of great food but not enough halal options and for a while now, I have been pondering over writing about my longing for chicken tikka. Breast piece, imli ki chatni, with a paratha. Diet Coke or if I really want to stir up some nostalgia, give me a Pakola.

There is a small place (what is the English equivalent for a dhaaba? A cross between a vendor and a kiosk? Maybe a really tiny shop/café?) in Gizri, Karachi called Fancy BBQ. My family and I would go there and order a whole feast: bun kababs, seekh kabobs, chicken tikkas, parathas, naans and it would never fail to amuse us when the bill would be a few bucks. Just enough to finance a burger and fries in America. We would sit in our car and eat, passing metal trays and little plastic cups of chutney, helping each other demolish the food and then asking for the tracing paper tissue at the end. 
Cajoling our dad to tip the waiter twice the amount his instinct told him to pay. It was definitely one of those few spaces where none of us fought. A happy family meal.

Then the two sources of tikkas in LUMS: the greasy one in a box that you’d get at the khokha. The man would warm it up in the microwave and it would take forever to open the little packets of chutney, which would then seep into the box and make it all soggy. Fahad got that every now and then and we’d sit on a sidewalk and I’d steal his chicken. Then there was Zakir tikka, where the food was warm and we’d sit on the rooftop in the cold or the muggy warm days or the breezy spring days. The tikka was fresh but there wasn’t any tamarind chutney, and we’d usually have it with naan.

So, for the longest time I was craving halal barbeque. And then I came to Dallas. Warm, sunny, and filled with desi people. And if there are enough South Asians around, you can be sure there are more than enough restaurants to feed these people! The first day I had my tikka! In a grocery store-cum-restaurant, with a menu that was enough to turn me into a dumbfounded, salivating statue. So I turned my face away from all the options and said I just want a tikka! Sprinkled with lemon juice, soft, warm naan and mint chutney. Papery napkins, women in loud colors and men talking in familiar languages and tones, little kids running around, dupattas, and skin the color of my skin.
Who else calls diabetes ‘shoogurr’? Or having high blood pressure, ‘koles-trol’?

Everywhere we go, I see Pakistanis and Indians and it is awesome. I saw the pretty water garden, which was more water and less gardens, flowing down concrete steps at dizzying angles, in a pool the color of serenity, and spurting from fifty fountains in perfect harmony lit up in changing neon colors. The stockyards with its Texan appeal pouring out in the cobbled paths, men in cowboy hats riding horses with straightened hair, and steakhouses on every corner with huge cow heads staring straight at you with stoic expressions. All the kiddie coin-operated rides were four-legged animals you can ride (there was a horse that three kids rose all together: one on the back, one hanging on for dear life on the tail and the other splayed out on the front legs).
So much meat, so much fried food and bursts of mist spraying under canopies to combat the heat.

I like Dallas. And I have to admit, my favorite part is that I can walk into a shop where I will address the old guy behind the counter as “uncle” and be able to order a malai chicken roll paratha.   


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Challenge accepted

May 29

Life is full of contradictions (oxymoron will forever be one of my favorite words) and there are so many definitions we cannot hope to understand unless we talk in terms of what their opposites are. That is what I always fall back on when I’m trying to explain new words to others. High, low, happy, sad, tall, short. Of course, most adjectives are relative. What is considered tall in China isn’t quite the same as American standards of tall; concepts of beauty, modesty, freedom – they all change as you walk along, shifting shapes, morphing into different colors and sizes, and sometimes crossing the boundaries so that what is respectful in one place is considered disrespect in another, what some perceive as affection is seen by others as crossing the line, being intrusive; the definitions of liberty cartwheel into oppression if you just spin the globe and land in a different area.

Anyways, I digress (because digressing is so much fun). I miss reading Nabakov. There are very few people who can pick out three words and place them in a way that squeezes your heart; it appeals to your aesthetics, and even before you can ponder on what it means, you ust want to read it, look at it, let it roll over your tongue, say it out loud because it is so lovely. And it is not like he finds strange words – they’re common ones that we see around ourselves all the time. Sparkle. Pain. Ache. Nymph. Love. It’s just how he arranges them, in short sentences, complete mastery of punctuation. Never underestimate the power of periods and italics.

But that is also not the point. I’ve been thinking about how I love to write, and how important it used to be for me. How I used to scribble in all kinds of notebooks and journals, didn’t really need a pretty hardback cover. I just liked the feel of smooth paper. I’d write poetry, and prose, essays and short stories, I would start novels and even finish a couple. And then college happened, and I was having too much fun, and there was no time even when I was sad to write much. And then work, and now its school again. So I was thinking, I’d really like to write again, and all kinds of stuff, not just my little tirades and wistful thinking but character sketches, story plotlines. Maybe a travel diary sort of thing now that I’m on vacation, am visiting new places and just have more time and fewer things to manage. I don’t need to plan every 30 minutes of the day and do things like take my keys out while I’m in the bus so I won’t waste 25 seconds outside the house.

I need to write more regularly. Starting tomorrow, I think I’m going to start a little a Day in Dallas (or Austin or wherever I am), and then see if I can develop a character based on something. A shop, a passerby, a comment. Let’s see how this works out! Pledge to be regular, interesting, and motivated. Even if it means having to push myself to do these things that I love to do – see the oxymoron? 

Two minutes of hate

May 25

My 12-year-old mentee is adorable. She is a ball of energy, full of superlatives and positive vocabulary. She would always reply with a flamboyant adjective when I asked her how she is – “groovy! Fabulous! Fantastic!”

In fact, it was because of this boundless enthusiasm that she would get into trouble, because she couldn’t sit still for long enough, too much to do, too much to see, the sun is so bright, she just wanted to go out and play. It’s like she has tiny invisible wings around her ankles, so she skips and hops around the hallways, drumming along lockers and walls, high-fiving, hugging, falling over her friends.

So that is when the sky is blue. But if something goes wrong, or she doesn’t get to do what she really wants to do – look out! The clouds hang low, the brows meet in a droopy arch over her lioness eyes, and she pouts like she is on the cover of a teenage magazine. So one of the things we talked about was what happens when she doesn’t get to do something she had her heart set on doing. And how we can minimize the damage that hours of sulking can have, both on her and those around her. One of the things I suggested was that she give herself some time, say five minutes, and allow herself to sulk for that time. After that, she should tell herself, okay, I had some time to be grumpy, now I need to snap out of it.

I doubt it is going to be a magical solution, but she seemed to think it made sense at least.
So. I’ve been trying to do the whole positive psychology thing and just focus on the good things, whine less and be an optimist, flick off the not-so-bright aspects of life and keep my eyes trained on the wind-in-my-hair-I-am-a-free-spirit-whistling-up-in-a-tree kind of stuff.
But as I sit here on my too-pink bed, with my eyes itchy and my legs hurting, sleep teasing me as it skirts just out of grasp, I think I will give myself some time. I’m going to give myself two minutes to whine and talk about things that are just pissing me off or making me sad enough to curl into bed with Doritos and hummus and bread and cupcakes to watch endless episodes of bad TV shows like Greys’ and Desperate Housewives.

From the bats in my chimney, to the perpetual state of wondering if I will have to take out the trash this time too; from the humid heat to the splotches on my face, my hair falling out like I’m a dying tree in Autumn. From being so far away, not being in Rome or Barcelona; always having to cook for myself, to the cobwebs in the corner and the huge spider that is hiding somewhere around my bed. I give myself two minutes to whine about all this and more, and then. Then I will get back to life. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Thank You Note

May 19

The curly brown hair poked out from under the bright green felt hat; the little car perched quietly on the street side, its two spherical yellow eyes glowing in the dim winter morning. The Dutch Leprechaun was here to pick up her only passenger, too polite – or too creepy – to let the passenger know she was here early.  So she just took out her magazine and read up on the many detriments of drinking diet soda.

“Ullo!” she said brightly as her passenger, a South Asian chick, opened the car door. Only Dutch Leprechauns can reach that squeaky, radiant high pitch so early in the morning, complete with a wide grin. “Morning,” the South Asian chick would reply in an averagely friendly tone.

The questions would start as soon as the car engine revved into life. The Dutch Leprechaun had to be in a perpetual state of inquiry. She would often hop from one to another, trying to draw complete pictures of lives that she did not know, and then ask more, to color in the sketches. Sometimes the South Asian would run out of words so she would ask the Leprechaun to shut up. But not for long. The South Asian chick understood that the questions were kind of a lifeline for DL. If she stopped asking, she might lapse into a long Sleeping Beauty-like sleep. Some curse associated with being a leprechaun.
The green felt hat was worth it, though.

DL was a little kooky. She talked in strange accents, and thought it was funny to make jokes like “your mother called me and told me she doesn’t like you”. She also made jokes about teenage serial killers who stalked and subsequently stabbed their mentors. DL also invented the Chicken Dance.
The South Asian was utterly thankful for the early mornings and early afternoons spent in DL’s blue car. And playing catch in the scruffy office. And getting an opportunity to bring out her goofy preteen personas. And, although she would never, ever say it, asked all those questions because it made her feel like people cared about the world outside of the United States.

Thanks, DL for a fun semester. If you have trouble making friends with the education people next year because you’re so weird, you should know I’m here for you. Every now and then, when I’m not busy being a groovy South Asian chick.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

“I hate nature!”

May 12

“Tell me a joke,” the boy from Nepal is one of the most exquisite creatures in this world. He is so polite, it breaks my heart into a thousand wistful sighs, “I hope my son is so beautifully mannered as this boy!”.
“I can’t think of any jokes!”
“Aw come on, you have to know ONE.” And when I shake my head he tells me he’s just going to make up one. “I was out in the forest hunting, and I had a gun with only three bullets and suddenly four lions jumped out and I only have three bullets. But all four lions die. This is kind of a riddle-joke. How did that happen? I killed three of them with the bullets, and the fourth one just had a heart attack because his friends died.” He looks earnest and happy. I tell him it was a really creative and funny joke.

Middle schoolers can be challenging, they can be really mean (the kind of meanness that can really sting because it rings of truth), and they can be so whiny – “I hate nature!” one girl grumbled as soon as we stepped out of our giant bus onto the bright green expanse of a nature reserve and sculpture park. “I wanna go home now.” And then a few minutes later, the same girl had her sneakers off, pants rolled up and was standing ankle-deep in a stream, giggling over the soft green algae she held in her hand.

It was the best kind of field trip, educational in sneaky ways, science dancing all around us, “What are the best materials to use for artwork that is always going to be outside under the sky?” A statue of a triumphant looking dog holding a stick in its mouth – “why is it titled Success?” Catching frogs in the ponds and touching leaves that feel as soft as the underbelly of a fuzzy kitten, then unearthing a box that was buried by students of some middle school a year ago. Finding your kindred spirits in letters that were scrawled out in preteen handwriting. Tootsie rolls and pencils. A regular old treasure box. And then the kids buried the shoe box with things that belonged to them and their school, digging up the ground, taking turns with the spade and then covering it up, sticking a telltale x signpost above the spot.

It really was a perfect fieldtrip, nobody got into trouble, nobody got lost, people pushed their limits, getting closer to amphibians, walking on forest trails, eating horribly processed cupcakes.

I love watching middle school student dynamics. The kids who need to be the center of attention, the ones who are shy and need to be coaxed out from behind their science fiction books (these are the ones who surprise you later, turning out to be regular comedians, or musical geniuses, or just really amazing to talk to. “Can you do a British accent?” I teased this girl with flowing brown-blond hair and she replied instantly, “Do you want a spot o’tea guvnor?” in an adorable, clipped English accent.). There are the secret crushes, “does Johnny really want me to come sit there?” “Yes, he does!” “No, I don’t!” “Just come back and sit with us!” “But did he say he wants me to?” “No!” “Yes!”
The ones who are sly, terribly polite as they talk to you and then stick their middle finger up as soon as you turn away.

Working here is teaching me a lot about parenting. I’m trying to grasp the balance between excessive authoritarian styles where you do as you’re told no matter what (back home in Pakistan) and the lax, I don’t care what you do because I’m doing what I want to do anyways kind of parenting that one can often see in households here. Somewhere between cooped up in the house forever versus shove you out the minute you’re 18. Or “I don’t want you to watch TV because you might want to get a boyfriend” versus “I’m going to talk about birth control and contraceptives with you because I know you’re going to do what you want and at least I want you to be safe”. I’m sure there are more apt, precise names for these kinds of styles but I think I get my message across. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Aisha in Wonderland

May 6

It feels like summer, the shorts are shorter than ever and arms and legs are turning darker in the sun, which beats down so early in the morning you mess up timings. Is it really 6 am and so bright? Were people always out and about so early with their sneakers and dogs and we can see them now because it’s light out or is it to match the new sun schedules? It feels like its noon even though it’s barely 9 am, and I try and squeeze into the three inches of shade under the bus stand.
The evenings are nice though and patio furniture is out, the sun lightening colors and bleaching old cushions. Can you smell the barbecue? Man I miss the barbecue in Karachi. I think I even dreamt of a tikka! Yum.

My list of things to do has petered out, all assignments have been crossed out with gusto and I give my final presentation tomorrow. I came home today after a meeting and there was not much to do. It was a rare feeling. My day wasn’t planned to the half hour, with 20 minutes for dinner and an episode of some silly sitcom. I could just choose to sit and let my mind wander, pause for several minutes and look at how nice the bookshelf looks now that I dusted it off (OCD, much? I think it is getting worse… in fact, I know it is getting worse). So I sat on the futon, and as warm as it was outside, in my airy lounge with the fan twirling like an old, slow dervish lost in time, it was quite comfortable, enough to sip on some strong tea. Read my book indefinitely. What joy. How grad school makes slow afternoons and alarm-clock-less mornings so special.

I scribbled a list of fun things to do in St. Louis for the month of May. And just like that, the days will slip away and fall in place with the past, and it will be time for travelling. I do hope I get my visa for Canada.

I must go see my magic garden. Did I talk about the magic garden? Or the Iraqi grocery store man? The Dutch Leprechaun? The ignorance in America about the terror that their war has dropped like a million grenades in my country?
So many stories to tell. I guess I’ll start with the wonderland that I stumbled into last weekend.

Wonderland Down the Lane

Joe wears a golfer’s cap and khaki pants. He has white hair, and is tall but doesn’t really walk with his shoulders held straight and upright. He owns a wonderland on a residential street with a small park nearby and mismatched, cute houses all around. It is a pretty regular neighborhood, with lots of old, worn-out trees. It costs $2 to enter his little museum/café and you walk into a quiet gallery with signs from all over the Midwest, metallic church symbols hanging sturdily, eternally, a neon bakery boy sign covering an entire wall and glowing happily, glittery, moving lights in a square sign, 2D, 3D, just intricately beautiful in its disjointed cohesiveness.

Joe owns a wonderland, and he is quite grumpy. It seems like he doesn’t agree with a lot of stuff that goes on, and you can tell he wouldn’t be the sort of guy to have a Facebook account. You could tell he appreciated art, and if you seemed genuinely interested he might not frown too much at you and even let you go out into his sculpture garden. Which is the wonderland I walked into, thankfully with my camera.

“I don’t usually let people go there…” he said as he pointed to a door leading out from the opposite side of the museum. He seemed disinterested in my utter amazement. I stepped out from the room into a garden with an old broken gray tiled path, and just ahead, right in front of me behind small bright red flowers rose a large metallic sculpture, a dark gray face with a cigarette held between its lips. The landscape of the garden was incredible, with wooden structures holding old folding chairs, a tree growing out from a perfectly spherical hole in a bench, old lanterns standing peacefully broken on a rusty table. I stood there on the gray path, frozen because it was so serene, beautiful, unexpected. It is like a secret garden, nobody really knows about it even though it’s so amazing with little details (the word idiosyncratic has never been such an apt word before), huge statue-like structures, a fountain, a bridge. The sound of birds and water flowing down over a little turbine is all that you can hear.  

It was a fairly large garden (a well you could stare into and see the reflection of the storm clouds forming above), a red robot stood bright red in one corner, a chair gathered rust and slowly disintegrated, a marker of time in its own way, in another corner. A pile of broken glass glittered under a wooden structure, with a sign saying “the lost Dutchman’s mine”, a milkman with a bottle three times taller than me sprouted of the ground, behind a small animated boy face smiling eerily.
I could have walked around for hours, taking pictures, just looking and inhaling deeply. I wanted to make it my own spot, my favorite place in St. Louis, a sanctuary to escape to with a sandwich, strawberries, tea, a book, papers to scribble on.

Joe had a helper, who was a nicely built man, perhaps in his early 40s. He was welding some new sculptures or signs when I walked out into the garden. He made up for Joe’s lack of friendliness and shook my hand, telling me about the café (with its bright, Bohemian look, red, pink, orange tablecloths on different sizes tables, a small stage for performers, all sorts of signs and pictures and knickknacks on the walls), which only opens on Thursday after 7 pm and doesn’t let people below 30 years in. “There used to be lots of kids here before, they could bring their own beer so they would all come and hang out but then they’d get wasted and super loud, and Joe had to shut his place down because of all the noise. Now he only lets people 30 and above in. But I think he’d let you in, you should come and check it out next Thursday. I’ll probably be around anyways so I’ll let you in.”
Joe said the same thing to me later after I told him how much I loved the place (he couldn’t care less about what I thought of the place, though) and he said he doesn’t let young people in to the café anymore. “I don’t drink though, I think you should let people like me in,” I told him, and he looked grumpy as ever. But he muttered, “I might make an exception” with just enough conviction for me to grab a hold of and say, “I sure am going to try!”

Old, grumpy Joe and his café/museum/garden of wonders. He lives in an apartment above the museum. I wonder if his house is as interesting to look at with pictures and signs and oddities all over or is it just plain and austere, with whitewashed walls and the only picture is a black-and-white photograph of his girlfriend, who he never married and who lives with an ordinary nice old fellow across the country, growing old with someone she cares about in an ordinary, mediocre way. Does he eat sandwiches every Tuesday evening and have a TV set with no cable or DVD, just a box with buttons? Does he come down and sit next to the tree on the bench and wait for the sun to rise? Does he sit in the evenings and smoke cigars, thinking of his girlfriend and poetry and birds and wars? Does he sing to the wooden squirrel perched behind the bench? Or is he a regular old Joe who eats boxed dinners and watches sports?

I’m going to win Joe over. That is my plan.