Waste not, want not

I have lived in the US for more than 15 years now. Yet, every time I walk into a public school lunch cafeteria in the US, I experience culture shock all over again! This is because I have never witnessed food waste on such a large scale in my life.  Every time I witness this, it makes my heart ache, it upsets me so much that it ruins my entire day, and it stays with me for days afterward. This happened yet again today.

I was working with a kindergartener who received a special lunch because he is lactose intolerant. It was a plate with five small slices of pita bread, a cup of hummus, 5 cherry tomatoes, 3 pieces of broccoli, a bunch of carrot sticks, half an orange, and a carton of lactose-free milk. The boy picked up one piece of broccoli and nibbled it for a while. Ten minutes or so later, he got up and asked to be dismissed because he was “done” with his lunch. He then walked up to the waste station (yes, I call it the waste station – it has a huge garbage bin for general garbage and three separate containers for organic waste, liquids, and recyclable products) and one of the staff members took his lunch from him. Here comes the culture shock – the lady then proceeded to dump the unopened carton of milk and the entire contents of his untouched plate, including the unopened tub of hummus into the garbage! But, she sorted the garbage accordingly into the organic waste and recyclables. The unopened carton of milk went into the general garbage because … it was unopened (so she couldn’t tip the milk into the 10-gallon container that is set up there for the leftover milk waste!

I know that children waste food. They are picky eaters and I am sure that most moderately well-off children from all over the world waste food. My kids waste food too (and get severely punished). But, what shocks me about the food waste in schools is that adults waste food without a second thought. Food waste at these schools is an adult-endorsed, school-sanctioned everyday activity! No one bats an eye! Teachers and grown-ups in educational institutions (where they should be educating the kids on the value of food and the morality and ethics of wasting it) don’t even think that anything wrong is going on here. I will never get used to this.

I work as a substitute teacher in a populous public school district in Washington state. My work takes me to a different school every day and over the course of this year, I have worked at about 90% of the schools here. I work with all grade levels from elementary schools to high schools. I have noticed that the elementary schools waste way more food than middle and high schools. By the time the kids are in middle school, they have more control over what they choose for their lunch. They are more likely to choose the junk they actually want to eat and avoid getting stuff they don’t. Elementary school students don’t have much of a choice and get the standard school lunch that has been meticulously balanced to include proper servings of protein, vegetables, fruit, and dairy. This is an effort by the community to instill good eating habits in children at a young age. But, it totally defeats the purpose because all they do is throw it away. They just grow up and then continue eating the unhealthy stuff.

The flexibility of my job allows me to choose my assignments. Early this school year, I substituted for a staff member who worked as a cafeteria monitor and the experience left me so traumatized that I stayed away from elementary school assignments for a while! Most schools here have a small seating area and so, the lunch-times are scheduled based on grade level. This school, like a lot of the other elementary schools, has a waste station with a 10-gallon bucket for milk and other liquid waste. This container fills up and is emptied after each grade finishes eating lunch! That’s roughly 60 gallons of milk (mostly) that is wasted every day in each of the 21 elementary schools in this district alone! I am willing to wager that more than half of the milk that was served that day was wasted. Working in the cafeteria that day, all I could think about were the thousands of cows that are boxed into tiny spaces and made to lactate all their lives so that these people can throw out the food that rightfully belongs to the calves.

I come from a country that has many starving people. I know Indians who struggle to feed their family 3 meals a day. In my culture, asking if you have eaten is a common way of greeting people.  One day, I ran into the 12-year-old daughter of one of my father’s employees. She saw me, greeted me, and asked me if I have eaten. I said yes and returned the greeting and enquired if she had eaten. Because she was a child, she didn’t tactfully lie, she told me the truth. She hadn’t eaten that day. I about died when I realized she hadn’t eaten because they had no food at home and no money to buy food. I got her something to eat and bought whatever I could send home with her.

I was blessed to be born in a privileged family, but I have never taken food for granted. My mother used to tell me about her grandparents who struggled for food and brought us up with a deep appreciation for our blessings. At the age of 21, I found myself in Australia was working part-time on campus when I was in graduate school. The funding for my job ended and I ran out of savings. I knew my family in India was also going through some financial difficulties at that time and I didn’t want to burden my parents with this information. For about 4 months, I had very little money for food and would end up eating 1 banana and a cup of chamomile tea for dinner. This is an experience I have never revealed to anyone except to my husband. My parents would be beside themselves if they ever found out about it. With this background and experience, I find it so hard to just stand by and watch them throw food away like dirt. There have been times when I have brought it up as tactfully as I could to the teachers around me. The teachers always tell me that it’s a safety issue! That’s when I want to roll my eyes and give them my opinion on the issue as a food microbiologist! (I have a Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology, and my area of expertise is food safety.)

The US probably has the safest food system in the world. Yet, Americans and unbelievably paranoid about the safety of their food. There are people dying of hunger around the world and these people have the luxury to throw out perfectly good food because it “may” be dangerous. The irony is that it’s not just other parts of the world! According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “one in eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table” even as “40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten”. Initially, I worried that we are currently raising a generation of Americans who have no respect for food. But as I watch the teachers and staff do nothing, I realize that these kids are not the first generation of Americans who take their food for granted.

As a Hindu, I find food waste downright sinful. A few years ago, I sat my daughter down and showed her youtube videos of starving children to make her understand why I get so upset when she wastes food. If you are reading this, please take a moment to ponder this problem. Next time, you see a child wasting food, at least comment on it so they can think about what they are actually doing. When reminded of starving people in the world, most American kids reply condescendingly that “we can mail this food to them”. Don’t let your kids get away with that retort. Make an effort to install empathy in your children for the underprivileged. Tell them to think about how much effort and resources went into putting that vegetable/fruit/glass of milk on your table. Remind them of the toil of all the farm workers and the environmental toll it’s taking on our planet to both produce and waste that food. Take a moment to count your blessings and make a commitment to do whatever you can to prevent such waste.

Thank you,

-AB

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Reader Discretion is Advised

I am returning to my blog after a long hiatus. Mostly because I have been spending all my spare time reading rather than writing. Now, a book that I read has brought me back to writing.

My favorite genres of fiction are mystery, horror, and thriller. These genres have their sub-genres and my favorite among those are murder mysteries, supernatural horror, and psychological thrillers – think Agatha Christie, Stephen King, and writers similar to Peter Swanson. The psychological thriller is a finicky category for me. I loved Clare Mackintosh’s “I let you go” but hated Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”.  It’s also a very popular genre in current times with a lot of new authors choosing to write such thrillers. I am in the process of discovering an author of the genre who is as reliable as King is to horror and Christie is to mysteries. So, I try a lot of new authors in this genre and choosing these books has become a game of chance.

There are three types of books that bother me. The first one, which I come across very very rarely, are books that make me wonder how they ever got published. These are the ones with bad writing, giant plot holes, and one-dimensional characters. I never shred a book to pieces in a review because I believe that writing a book, editing it, and then publishing it is in itself an achievement that deserves praise. It is more than most people can do in their life and I am sure that the book was the author’s “baby” and I never want to belittle it. Criticism does no good except when it is of the constructive kind. The worst thing I can say about a book is that it is a waste of my precious reading time (after all, others may enjoy it).

Then there are the books that have the potential to be great but don’t do it enough justice. These are books where the premise is interesting, but I feel a little let down at the end of the book. These are also books that got almost everything right but is marred by some glaring error. Most often it is something that requires you to suspend disbelief like when someone acts out of character or something defies logic. I read a thrilling book by Karin Slaughter called “The good daughter”. It was well-written, fast-paced, and invoked strong emotions in the reader, but there is a person in the book who acts illogically (or maybe I just couldn’t picture someone acting like that?). That book bothered me for that reason.

Then there are books that are perfectly good but just not my cup of tea. I recently read a book that kind of fell into this category. I avoid genres that I do not like and in most other cases the synopsis on the back of the book gives me some idea if I will like it or not. But, recently this technique let me down. I read a book called “I Know Where She Is” by S.B. Caves. It’s a debut psychological thriller by a British author and follows the recent trend of psychological thrillers about missing children. To any parent, a missing child is the worst possible nightmare. Books with this premise already start off with an emotional punch. This particular book then veered off into a subject that is a horrific nightmare for anybody: sexual abuse, specifically sexual abuse and torture of children. I have do not have any complaints about the language, pacing, or the plot (although that kind of stretched plausibility a bit). But, I just could not handle the subject. Of course, I could have just stopped reading it, but the author did a good job of reeling me in and before I knew it I was too invested in the story to stop. I needed to read it to make sure it had a happy ending (the ending was okay, it wasn’t unhappy but not very satisfying).

I have read books on this subject before and struggled with it. I have read books where it was the central focus and those that had it as a part of the plot. One book that stands out in my memory is Amy Gentry’s “Good as gone” which was based on the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. After that book, I swore off books that deal with sexual abuse of children as the central topic. Although both these books weren’t too graphic (thank God for that!) they just made me sick. After I finished “I know where she is” it followed me for ages and I finally figured out what was really bothering me. While it may be true that I am not able to handle such topics because I am older or because I have my own children, the real reason this book affected me so much was that it caught me unawares. There was no indication in the synopsis of that book that indicated that it was heavily based on this topic. I have been very careful to avoid such books but this one somehow slipped through the cracks.

The whole experience got me thinking about the fact that books do not have “ratings” likes R-rated or M for mature or warnings such as  “viewer discretion is advised” that appear in movies, video games, and TV shows. It made me wonder why. Juvenile books have some indication of targeted age or reading skill level but that is it. Why? When I ran a google search on this, I came across some blog posts that heavily disapproved of any such warnings, even “trigger” warnings to protect victims of such abuse who might accidentally read it.  It made me realize that I would support such a rating system. It will surely help such survivors of abuse and allow others to make more informed decisions about what to read.

When I discussed this with my librarian husband, he suggested that it might have something to do with freedom of speech and the controversies about banned books. But, I think those factors would apply to movies, video games, and TV games as well. I still do not know why its different for books. After thinking about it a lot, I have come to the sad conclusion that it is different for books because no one cares. Not enough people read enough to fight for such a requirement as others have done for video games and such. People just don’t read any more in this era of instant gratification. So many people prefer to watch the movie than read the book. What is your opinion? Please leave a comment.

Happy reading!

-AB

Age is a work of art

“Youth is a gift of nature, but age is a work of art” – Stanislaw Jerzy Lee

On my recent trip to India, I was blessed to meet and reconnect with the man who taught me all that I know about art. My art “Master”, as I always referred to him, taught me art for roughly 13 years and I met him this July after nearly 25 years.

When I was a child, my mother tried to push me into Carnatic music or Bharatanatyam like most other children in my community. She is big on everyone having a hobby/art that would relax them and give them pleasure. Her own was sewing. When I showed no interest in sewing, music, or dance she gave up in disgust… or so I thought. But when I was nine years old, she saw me drawing and wondered if maybe she had just been pushing the wrong type of art on me. In those days, it was hard to find someone who taught art outside of school.  Nowadays, art classes are very common in Chennai. Back then, the standard practice was to send children to vocal music lessons or to learn to play an instrument or some kind of traditional dance. But my mother was always ahead of her times and soon embarked on a mission to find me a private art teacher. She contacted a second cousin of hers who dabbled in Thanjavur paintings and sought her help. This cousin recommended my Master, who was then a first-year student at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Madras.

I remember feeling very excited when my mother announced that a drawing master was coming that evening to give me art lessons. What I remember most about that day is scrambling around to change out of my school uniform and into my best outfit before he arrived. His arrival was somewhat anti-climatic for me. He was a really young man, only 9 years older than me. On the first day, we worked on a pencil drawing of a bowl of fruit (still life). He taught me to look for the light source, notice the shadows, and shade accordingly.

After some months/years(?), my excitement waned into a rebellious disinterest. I was a teenager with a litany of petty complaints about the class. The lessons were too long I said, and they are always scheduled on Sunday mornings and make me miss my favorite tv shows. I complained that I couldn’t have a single weekend to myself. It didn’t help that some of my relatives constantly compared my achievements in art to my cousins’ steady progress in playing the violin. I was also irritated that my master always picked watercolors when we painted. I kept wanting to try other media but it felt like he was always postponing that. I cannot remember if I whined about these complaints to him, but I did rant to my mother.  What I disliked most was my mother making me fall at his feet and seek his blessings every once in a while on special occasions. My mother assured me that this worship of the Guru (teacher) was standard practice in the Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam circles. In my mind, it just didn’t equate. He was so young, I was his first student and teaching didn’t come naturally to him. He was an awkward teacher and I was an immature teenager. We would argue like we were equals about everything from art to religion. I found it hard to elevate him to that pedestal.The frequency of lessons slowly decreased as I finished school and college. The last time I saw Master was before I went to Australia for graduate studies.

When I was in high school, everyone knew that I was an artist. Many admired and encouraged my art. But when I went to college I never shared my art with anyone.  I doubt that any of my college mates even know that I can draw and paint with some prowess. During my 20s, I hated every piece of art that I produced. I was my severest critic. I was convinced that I had no talent and I stopped drawing and painting.  I had several arguments with my mother about her “forcing” art on me. I told her that I had no real talent and that she only found my art attractive because she was my mother. When she chided me for not cherishing my teacher, I responded saying that teachers should not be blindly worshipped; they needed to earn that kind of respect. The same relatives that compared my art skills to others’ music skills told me that I had wasted my parent’s money and I was wasting a talent that was divinely bestowed upon me. Eventually, my mother stopped talking to me about my art. I think she felt that she had failed in her goal of training me in some kind of hobby that would give me pleasure.

However, a few years later, I noticed that I doodled and sketched whenever I was stressed. I then realized that my mother had succeeded in her goal after all. Those cousins of mine who used to play the violin and the veena had moved on and didn’t even own those instruments anymore. But, I was still drawing. Pencil drawing is my first love and it’s something I do to relax. As I started drawing again, I started remembering the things that my master had taught me so many years ago. I heard his instructions in my mind. “Where is the light coming from? Where will the shadows be?”.It took me several more years to venture into painting. But when I did, I worked with acrylics and avoided watercolors like the plague. However, I was intrigued every time I read or heard that watercolor is a harder technique to master than other media. In my mind, it was always this boring thing that I had done so many times. As I wondered about why Master made me do watercolors all the time, I began to revisit my memories of those art lessons. For the first time, I was viewing them through the eyes of an adult. I realized that the emotional baggage that I carried about art was something that I had created myself. Neither my master nor my mother was responsible for it. I understood that my behavior during those times was so silly and childish and I was ashamed of it. I berated myself for the things I had done and said, especially to my mother. Earlier this year I searched for my master on Facebook. I wanted to know where he was and what he was doing. I wanted to “look” at him also through my adult eyes. I found out that he was now a Professor at the College of Fine Arts in Kumbakonam.

Every time I visit India, I go on a pilgrimage to the Oppiliappan temple in Kumbakonam. When I purchased my train tickets for the trip this July, I laughingly told my mother that Master lived in Kumbakonam and wouldn’t it be weird to run into him after all these years? She said that we could go and meet him if I wanted. I thought about it and dismissed it. We arrived in Kumbakonam and set out with a list of temples we wanted to visit. On our way to the last temple for the day, we passed the College of Fine Arts.  By the time we went to the temple and started back, I had made up my mind. I wanted to meet him. I felt that meeting him again would finally help put all my feelings at rest, especially the shame that I felt. We pulled into the college and I walked up to the watchman and enquired if he was there. The man nodded and directed me upstairs. I walked up the stairs very nervously and looked into each classroom as I passed. Finally, we arrived at the department of painting. I walked into a classroom with a transparent cubicle at the back that served as an office. Master was sitting at the desk talking to someone. He looked exactly the same, except his jet black hair was snow white now.

I knocked and walked in and said “Master…”. Recognizing me instantly, his face lit up with a smile and he stood up to welcome us all in.  I watched in fascination as he talked to my mother and enquired after my father and brother. Then he turned to me and said, “You know the weirdest thing. I was just thinking about you this morning and I haven’t thought about you in years! I wondered what you were doing. All I know was that you went to Australia for your post-graduate studies.” He then called his daughter into the office and introduced her to us. She is now a final year student at the college. He told us that he also has a son who lives elsewhere. When he noticed my daughter he grinned and said that even if he hadn’t recognized me he would have realized who I was after she saw her, because she looks exactly like me when he first came to teach me. Over the next hour, he took us on a tour of the college and proudly introduced me to everyone as his first student. My daughter was thrilled to look at all the student’s paintings and I was surprised that there wasn’t a single watercolor in sight. It was a surreal experience meeting his current students. I saw him interact with them and realized he also had matured… as a teacher. I could sense that his students not only respected him deeply but loved him as well.

He insisted on us visiting his home which was a stone’s throw away. We went to his house and met his warm and wonderful wife. As we sipped the tea, he asked what I had been up to and about my husband. Then he said, he was going to make a piece of art as a gift for my husband. He took some plain and heavy cardstock and began etching my daughter’s profile on it. As he worked we talked about my art. He remembered some of the pieces we did and mentioned one as his favorite. For the life of me, I could not recall that painting. He said it was a watercolor. I thought “of course it was” and I asked him if he changed his specialty from watercolor to different media. He looked at me in confusion and said no; he teaches all types of painting.

“Oh, I thought you loved watercolor because you always wanted to work with it.” He said. “Ah. That was only because watercolor is a fast medium. Our classes were only a couple of hours every week and I wanted you to have a complete painting done in that time. I wanted to make sure that you had a sense of satisfaction and not get bored. If we had worked with oil paints we would have waited for each layer to dry and that would take weeks. I realized what a simple and logical explanation it was and marveled that the prejudice in my mind had prevented me from realizing that.

He did an etch of both my children, my mother, and me using his nail on the cardstock. It was awesome to see him work. He asked me how often I drew or painted these days. I told him quite frequently especially when I am stressed. He smiled and said “I am so happy to hear that you stuck with it. You were really good you know. Especially considering how young you were then.” I realized that those were the words I had been waiting for to believe in myself and my art. I have no memory of him saying something like that to me before.

As we readied to leave, I requested that he stand so that I may fall at his feet and seek his blessings. This time my mother was not prompting me. I did it with all my heart. In my mind, I sought not only his blessings but also his forgiveness for my disrespect all those years ago. He presented me with a saree and extracted a promise to visit him for a meal when I was in Kumbakonam again. He mentioned for the hundredth time that he was so happy to see me after all these years. I went back to Chennai the next day and painted my first watercolor in decades. I could hear him in my mind again as I mixed the colors and shook off the excess water before painting.

My only regret now is that I still can’t remember which painting was his favorite.

“To be old and wise, one first has to be young and stupid” – Anon

-AB

 

Book Review: The Lake House by Kate Morton

Whether you own an e-reader or not, I highly recommend Bookbub.com to all my reader friends. The free subscription sends you an email every day on the various deals available for ebooks for the genres of your choosing. But there is an another perk – check out their blog with book list posts that gives you endless lists of great books in every genre imaginable.  It is fast becoming my go-to site for book recommendations. I can easily find exactly what I am in the mood for and it is a great tool for discovering new authors.  That’s how I picked up this book.

I so thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Lake House”. It had so many of my favorites going for it. I love Gothic books and am always excited to find a new author who writes this type of book. I recently read “The Lost Girls” by Heather young and it started me off on this new mini-genre (new to me, at least) of mysteries set in the present and past and narrated in parallel. Its natural that this appealed to me, considering that my favorite Agatha Christie is “Five little pigs” where Hercule Poirot investigates and solves a murder mystery that happened many years before. I appreciate the extra challenge that cold cases present with clues long gone and people’s flailing memories.

If there was ever a book that translated the process of putting a jigsaw puzzle into a novel, this was it. I am an avid jigsaw puzzle solver and reading this book was the literary equivalent of that process. Through the book, along with Sadie Sparrow, you find and try out various pieces of the puzzle – the disappearance of little Theo Edevane that happened 70 years ago. Featuring a complex set of many different characters, the story had so many layers to it. Every time you think you have located the correct piece of the puzzle, you realize it doesn’t really fit and you are off searching for the right one.

Towards the end, the solution became somewhat obvious by way of elimination but that did not deter from the enjoyment. I was so conflicted by the ending. Part of me felt that the ending was weak with one to many coincidences. I felt like the author had broken some of the very rules that she mentioned earlier in the book. However, there was a small part of me that appreciated how the story wrapped up in a nice tidy end with no loose hanging threads. I think a younger me would have loved the ending but I am now an older reader who is at last starting to appreciate the positives of open endings and questions left unanswered. My one other complaint was that the story was too wordy and described in too much detail. About a quarter of the book could have been cut off resulting in a tauter, quicker read. I like authors like Stephen King, who describe just enough to spark the reader’s imagination to complete the picture instead of listing every little thing.

I am excited to read that this is considered to be one of the author’s weaker books. It means I have a few other better books by her waiting for me. I am so looking forward to those!

-AB

Book Review: Squall by Sean Costello

Getting stuck in a snow storm is one of my worst nightmares. So, I was drawn to read this book where a snow storm forces an ordinary man into having a frightening and extraordinary day. The book is written as a third person narrative that suited the story. The story shifts between Tom Stokes, the ordinary man, and Dale, a drug dealer caught in a spot. I think the author did a great job with the characters, especially Dale. The secondary characters, a pair of Indian henchmen, were interesting but far-fetched. I noticed some errors about their background and such, but only because I am Indian and so it was obvious to me.

It was a quick read that was fast-paced and suspenseful with some dark humor that provided some nice comic relief. The climax was perhaps my favorite part of the story, even though it was somewhat far-fetched. I also loved the ending, however unrealistic.

This isn’t a book you read to enjoy the language or deep themes. It was a fun read that was pure entertainment. The writing is competent and the characters interesting enough to forgive the unrealistic plot. I was very much reminded of James Hadley Chase’s books while reading this. If you are Chase fan, you will enjoy this! Costello has other ebooks out there and I am looking forward to reading them when I am in the mood for something suspenseful but funny.

-AB

Book Review: All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

This was an interesting book. It was very suspenseful and unique in its style, in that the story was told in reverse.

The book starts off with the protagonist, Nic Farrell, returning to her small hometown for the summer to help her brother with selling their house and dealing with their ailing father. I like books that begin with a bang and this one didn’t. The first couple of chapters that set up the background were quite boring. There was nothing to pull the reader in. It was amazing that I continued with it. Nevertheless, I am glad I did.

After the stage was set the story proceeds speedily, narrated in reverse from Day 15 to Day 1. I found this to be a very daring strategy that nevertheless paid off in the end. However, even though it worked, it was also very off-putting and distracting. Instead of seamlessly sinking into the book, I had to actively work at following the narrative. This was extremely frustrating, especially when I had to stop reading and pick it up later on. It might be easier to read this as a physical book instead of as an ebook. The ebook format made it harder to go back for a quick look.

Nic Farrell is a mess on Day 15, which is two weeks after a girl goes missing just like another one did in the past. As the story proceeds we find out what happened in the present and the past (somewhat chronologically). Again, this aspect of the book made it confusing to follow. However, even with these challenges, the author did a good job building up the suspense and the reveal at the end of the reverse narration. I wonder how the story will hold up if read backwards (something I was very tempted to do as I read along, but I stuck with the reverse narration because that was the author’s intention). I might go back and read it backwards, but I don’t think it will be the same as reading it backwards for the first time. The reverse narration also affected the character development negatively.

The book handles interesting themes like… how far would one go to protect a loved one, how lack of communication affects relationships, and how the shadow of the past colors the present.

I  give this a 3.5 out of 5 stars. That is because the story fell apart at the end of the reverse narration. The events towards the end are very far-fetched and unbelievable. I especially hated the ending and I doubt that the characters would have ended up the way they did.

Still, I was glad I persevered with it and enjoyed reading it. Kudos to author for undertaking this risky reverse narration strategy and handling it as well as she did. A good debut into adult fiction from an author who usually writes YA. Certainly worth a read and I look forward to more by her.

-AB

Book Review: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

ywkmWhere do you get your book recommendations from? One of my reliable sources for good books are those recommended by Author Stephen King. A voracious reader, King, recommends good reads every once in a while on Facebook. It is my cue to immediately get hold of the book and plunge in with the confidence of it being a good read. King is more tolerant of slow-paced plots than I am and occasionally I find his recommendations too slow, but I know that if I persevere I will be rewarded with a good book.

So, I borrowed this book on Kindle from my local library based solely on King’s mention. The first half of the book moves very slowly and is a bit all over the place. But once the stage was set, the 2nd half races by very satisfyingly. I saw some reviews (on goodreads.com) saying that they did not finish the book because it was so slow. I think if they had persevered till about 45%, they would have liked the rest of it.

The story revolves around the family of an up-and-coming gymnast Devon. Devon is extraordinarily talented and her parents give it all to make the dream of her qualifying for the Elite competition (that would then allow her to qualify for the Olympics) come true. But, things get complicated when a death occurs amidst the community.

The author handles complex concepts such as:
how far would you go to achieve a dream?
how far would you go to help your child achieve her dream?
is the dream really the child’s or your’s? do parents try to live vicariously through their children?
how to navigate a parent-teenager relationship? etc.
The book makes you think about these things (almost like a Jodi Piccoult book), but also manages to pack a whodunit with it.

The author did a good job fleshing out the characters, except for that of Devon herself. Being such a central character, it was disappointing that Devon was somewhat one-dimensional. Devon is the subject of so much intense pressure in her life and it would have been nicer to know more about how she dealt with it. The whodunit was good. Although the perpetrator wasn’t a super secret until the very end, the book still managed to create enough doubt in the reader’s mind about what really happened. The language had no problems and the words flowed smoothly. The ending was somewhat abrupt but I can understand why it needed that ending. (I always follow the story past the book in my head and so open-ended books drive me crazy. I want to know the story, that is, how it was in the author’s mind and not just my interpretation of it. I love having friends who write fiction, because then I can directly question them on the story beyond the ending.)

I would love to give this 4 stars (which is what I clicked on goodreads.com) but if I had the choice it would be 3.5 and that would be only because of the meandering of the first half. I am excited to discover this author and look forward to reading more of her books.

-AB

Morning Pages

Yesterday, I came across this habit called writing “morning pages.” It is something I have been doing for a while, but I didn’t know that it had a name to it. Morning pages is the habit of writing at least three pages every morning. There are some rules attached to it. Firstly, the writing must be done by putting pen to paper- none of this digital stuff. Secondly, the writing must be just stream-of-consciousness. This means, no careful planning, no wilful narrating, and of course, no editing. It is just the act of penning down whatever it is that is currently going through your mind. Thirdly, it has to be honest. No self-editing for political correctness and such. The purpose is to just transfer one’s thoughts into paper in an effort to clear the clutter in your mind. It is also recommended that this activity be done in the morning. It is supposed to help one be more creative during the day, when done in the morning. Lastly, the pages must be kept private, that is, they are not meant to be read at all… by anybody. That includes you the writer! If you do want to read what you wrote, it is recommended that you wait a long time before you do so. The logic behind this rule is that you don’t want the junk back in your head. You are writing to get rid of it.

I started doing just this about a month ago. One morning, I woke up at 4 AM and could not go back to sleep. I gave up trying to fall asleep after an hour and decided to just get up and do something else. I had all these thoughts running around in my head and it felt chaotic. So I grabbed a notebook and wrote it all down, as and when it came to me. I found that it really helped clear my head. Since then, I have done this a couple more times and yesterday I found that there is name for it. (Just like I found out that my system of rapid logging lists in a notebook also has a name for it – a bullet journal and the doodling artwork that I have done since I was a kid is a “zentangle”. I guess I am just not enterprising enough to market my ideas!)

So yesterday, I decided to try and make this a regular habit. I woke up today and wrote four pages. I am amazed at how much it helped clear my head. Then again, it makes sense. I have always found writing to calm me down in some way. But, so far I have only used it to write publically in a blog or a facebook post or something. The drawback of that is that I sometimes go through a phase when I am depressed or disturbed and I don’t feel like divulging my thoughts to anyone. I feel vulnerable and I want to withdraw from the world. This then leads to long absences from writing (such as in this blog for nearly seven months or so), while I wait to come out of the funk. I think I now found a way to circumvent that with this morning pages ritual.

Initially, I wondered if writing the morning pages meant that I would run out of things to say and won’t be able to keep this blog going. Instead, it inspired me to write this. I wonder why it took me so long to figure this out. I kept a personal diary for about ten years from the age of 10-20. One day, I dug into my old diaries and read some of it. It all felt to inane and stupid that I just completely gave up on keeping a diary. Then, I started an “open diary” online. It was initially great but as annonymity gave way to a social network of sorts, I stopped writing in that. (Also the site closed up, I think). Now I realize that I have always had a real need to put down my private thoughts somewhere. Its not that my private thoughts are so horrible, its just that I am inherently a very private person.

Later, I got into the habit of keeping a journal each year. I do that even now, but I only write down appointments, reminders, or something important that happened. Now I have finally found a solution with the morning pages. I love the act of actually putting pen to paper. I always have. It makes me think better. I was always the student who made copious notes. The only drawback with morning pages is keeping it secret from nosy relatives (read nosy kids). I think the solution lies in periodically destroying the pages. It will take some practice for me to figure out how often that can be done.

So, to all my writer friends out there, have a go at morning pages. It might help you like it helped me.

-AB

P.S. What is the difference between a diary and a journal? I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer for that.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

It has been a good ten months since I stopped taking my sleeping pills. I have used sleeping pills to fall asleep on and off for a good 10 years – almost constantly really, except for the time I was pregnant with my son. I have tried to get off them several times over the last five years, but I was never successful. Now that it is almost a year since I stopped, I cautiously hope that I finally kicked the habit.

It has not been an easy journey. In the past, my only motivation to quit the sleeping pill was a vague belief of “chronic use of sleeping pills is bad for you.” But this time, I knew for sure that the pill was messing with my memory. My memory skills are very important to me. It is one of my strengths and something that I am proud of. The threat of losing my memory and my mind was a strong motivator in this quest to conquer sleep. Sometime ago, my doctor wrote me a prescription for a different sleeping pill assuring me that it was safe. I was hesitant about it and so she just shrugged and told me that I could use it if I want. I got the prescription filled but I have not used it at all. Every time I am tempted, I recall the feeling of intense embarrassment that I felt every time I couldn’t remember what happened the night before.

I have now come to see my chronic insomnia to be a disorder akin to alcoholism. I don’t think I will every be rid of it, but I can take steps to control it. I believe that using a sleeping pill even for one night will lure me back into the addiction. So, how do I control this beast that I have to live with? The answer lies in learning a few new tricks and following them diligently. Over the summer, I read a whole bunch of books on insomnia – from the helpful to the ridiculous. The first solution that is commonly recommended is the disciplined practice of sleep hygiene. Now, this is something that I have read so many times on various websites that I could probably recite it all in my sleep.

  1. Avoid or limit naps.
  2. Avoid stimulants like caffeine, especially after 3 PM.
  3. Do not eat too close to bedtime.
  4. Exercise regularly.
  5. Stop using screens with blue light for several hours before bedtime.
  6. Expose yourself to more natural light in the morning.
  7. Establish a regular sleep routine or ritual.
  8. Associate your bed with sleep – no watching tv or reading in bed.
  9. Ensure that the bed environment is ideal, not too hot or loud or bright.
  10. Go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day, including the weekends.

I have always shrugged off these suggestions because I believed that I was either already following most of them, or that some of them were impossible to follow. But after my research all summer, I wanted to give it a real try. Some things I was already doing – like no caffeine after 3pm, no screens for several hours before bedtime, somewhat regular exercise, morning sunlight exposure (as much as that is possible in the state of Washington!), and no tv in bed. I have always been against tv in bed. We have never had a tv in our bedroom. But I would always watch tv for an hour or so in the family room before bed,  (when kids are in bed and peace and quiet prevail) especially the shows that are not kid-friendly.

The first thing I did was start sleeping in a quieter room (aka no snoring from hubby). Then, I started turning down the lights at least two hours before bedtime. I stopped eating anything except for a small snack (to keep my blood sugars stable at night). Next, I started limiting or avoiding naps as much as possible. This was a bit of a challenge because I had to nap whenever I had a bad night’s sleep. I then tackled establishing a regular sleep routine. For this, I tried several things like a warm shower before bed, milk, or chamomile tea before bed and such. Nothing really caught on, so instead I settled for brushing my teeth, filling my water bottle, setting my phone to charge, and tucking the kids in bed. One change that made a huge difference was setting my phone on airplane mode during the night time. No more waking up because of notifications for every little thing! As my Fitbit vibrates for a silent alarm in the morning, I also made sure that I put the phone far away from the bed.

There were two suggestions on the list that were very hard for me. The biggest of them was sleeping and waking up at around the same time every day. As a night owl, this would be easier if I could go to sleep at 2 AM every night and wake up at 10 AM everyday. Alas, that is not possible in our world! So, I sacrificed the tv time that I used to enjoy after the kids went to bed and started going to bed pretty soon after the kids were asleep. This helped me establish a somewhat regular bedtime because I strictly enforce a regular bedtime on my children. Although it was difficult, I even managed to reduce the gap in bedtime on the weekends, to something more reasonable than four hours. But, even with all this, there was one more piece to the puzzle.

I resisted this last change the most because I never believed that not reading in bed would really make a difference . Reading in bed was my bedtime routine for years. In fact, that was how I realized that my sleeping pills were messing with my memory. I would have to go back and read the same section every night. My Kindle has a built-in light so I can read at night without disturbing others. Also, Kindles do not emit the blue night found in backlit screens, like phones and tablets. So, I believed reading in bed was okay and never made any effort to change that habit. However, over the past month or so, I have come to recognize my sleep window (that time just before falling asleep when your mind quiets and readies itself for sleep). I only learned to recognize this because of my regular bedtime. My sleep window is so small, such a light dip, that I would overcome it with the slightest stimulus (even reading). I never even realized that I had a sleep window before! But now that I knew I had one, I started waiting for it when I got into bed and give it a chance to develop before picking up my kindle to read. As weeks went by, I found myself avoiding the ritual of reading in bed and suddenly it all made sense. It was true – even reading in bed is disruptive to sleep (at least for someone like me). I really need to reserve my bed only for sleep. It just means that I will have to carve out some other time for reading. But, because reading is important to me so I am sure I will work that out.

Nowadays, I am falling asleep much faster than ever before. I picked out other small bits of advice, from books and websites, that have also helped. I keep a pad and pen near my bed to write down things that I want to remember the next day. That way I can let go of it in my mind. I surround my bed with everything I need. A full bottle of water, the pad and the pen, some headache meds and/or pain balm etc, all within a hand’s reach. To make my sleep “den” even more conducive to sleep, I set my thermostat a little lower than optimum. Did you know that one of the processes involved in falling asleep is a fall in your core body temperature? That’s why a warm shower before bed or a colder bedroom works. It makes your body temperature drop faster.

So, with all these lifestyle changes, I have made my insomnia bearable. I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and have trouble falling asleep again, but I am miles away from how bad it used to be. I still go to bed each day having no idea if I am going to get a good night’s sleep or not, but I am more hopeful. As each strategy brought me closer to my goal, I became more motivated to add more lifestyle changes to see if they will help. The downside of this type of management is the inherent fragility of it. Deviating from my sleep routine even for one day ripples into bad sleep for the next few days.

It helps to have a family that supports you. My family members, even my children,  know to never wake me up unless it is an emergency. My mother instilled in me a respect for sleep during my childhood. If I fell asleep before dinner (when I was a kid), she would rather let me sleep than wake me up to make sure I ate. She always said that missing that sleep would be more disruptive to my body than missing dinner. This is a unique attitude in an Indian mother (so many of them are obsessed with feeding their kids)! This family habit of “never wake a person who is sleeping” has even cost me a friendship. Just after college graduation, one of my best friend’s father arrived at my house to invite us all to his daughter’s wedding. I was out and my mother was napping and my 11-year-old brother refused to wake my mother and told him to come back some other time (as he was instructed to do with most people). He did not realize that it was an incredibly rude thing to do in this situation. Even after I apologized profusely on this behalf, my friend and her family took serious offense. Although I went to her wedding, she never spoke to me after that. Even after this incident, I stand by my “don’t wake up someone without a good reason” policy. I have heard it said in the Hindu culture that your soul communes with God when you are asleep. I believe that is the reason many of us wake up with a clearer head and more stable emotions after a good night’s sleep. Whenever a baby smiles in its sleep (and many babies do), my mother always said that the baby is smiling because God is playing with the child in his sleep!

Even after this incident, I stand by my “don’t wake up someone without a good reason” policy. I have heard it said, in the Hindu culture, that your soul communes with God when you are asleep. I believe that is the reason many of us wake up with a clearer head and more stable emotions after a good night’s sleep. My mother always says that whenever a baby smiles in its sleep (a lot of babies do), it is because God is playing with the child during sleep! I doubt most people think or write about sleep this much. But, for me, sleep is sacred. This morning, I tiptoed past the bird cage, because one of the birds was fast asleep! As I did that, it occurred to me that is an indication of how much I respect sleep. Its what prompted me to write this post.

So, please don’t wake a sleeping person unless you have a good reason. Here’s wishing everyone peaceful sleep.

-AB

 

Daddy

I watched Rajinikanth’s Kabali yesterday. Although, I personally do not like gangster stories I made an exception for the Superstar. I did not like the movie that much, but I do not regret making the exception. It was awesome to watch Rajini showcase his acting talents in this role. Punch dialogs and style aside, Rajini is inherently a great actor and you can see that clearly see that in this movie. Watching him in the role of an elderly father and husband was so authentic that it reminded me of my father and my recent time with him.

My dad visited me for four weeks this summer. It was the first real vacation he has had in years and I have never seen him relax as much as he did this time. I was so sad when it was time for him to go back to India that I spent the entire day with a big knot in my stomach. Before he left, he hugged me and told me that he had had a great time and made me promise to visit him next summer with my kids.

I don’t remember the last time my father hugged me. It must have been in my childhood. I have vague recollections of spending fun times with him when I was a really young child (less than seven years old). I remember being encouraged to call my parents “mummy” and “daddy” when I first started learning English. Over the years, I dropped “mummy” and called her “Amma” but daddy was always daddy – to this day.

When I was about eight years old, daddy quit his job to start up his own firm. Over the next ten years, I barely saw him. He’d come home from work after I went to bed and I would just see him for a few minutes in the morning. As a teenager, I hated that I never saw him. The teenage hormones robbed me of common sense and understanding like it does in all teenagers. All I could see was that he wasn’t there for me. He wasn’t physically or even verbally demonstrative of his affection. I resented him because I believed that money (that he was working so hard to earn) was more important to him than his daughter. My mother filled the emotional void and I grew up with her as my best friend.

Even in adulthood, my brother and I were always in the dark about his feelings towards us. Most of our interactions with him were through my mother. I came to re-evaluate my opinions about him only around the time of my marriage. I was taken aback by his attitude towards my interracial, inter-religious marriage. I am sure he had all kinds of dreams about my wedding, but he set all that aside and embraced my decision without reservations. It was a turning point in our relationship. Soon after that, I became a parent and gained a whole new understanding of parenthood and its challenges. Finally, I was able to put myself in his shoes and understand his actions. Suddenly, I was aware of the things that he had taught me even during those years when I thought he was absent. I recalled little moments here and there when he had told me things that had made an impression on me and molded me to be the person that I am today. I realized that the few memories that I had of him when I was growing up are some of my most favorite memories in all.

I can trace so many of my characteristics back to him. One of the first things he taught me was that everyone is a person and deserves to be treated as such, whether they sweep the floor or own the house. He told me to always ask people for their names, remember it and always address them by their names. So, I know the names of my neighborhood dhoti, the young lad who delivers tea to my dad’s office, my mother’s doctor’s assistant, the errand boy at the pharmacy, the watchman at the flat next door to my parents, the lady who cleans the bathrooms in their building and many such others. I love to see their smile when they realize that I know and remember their name. It breaks down barriers and makes it easier to get to know them. I know that the watchman next door is from Nepal and that he works in Chennai and sends money home for his sister’s marriage. I know how and why the tea lady at the office I worked at had burn scars on her hand. She told me one day when I asked her name and we stuck up a conversation. The simple thing that my dad taught me has opened worlds for me.

I learned the importance of charity from him. He told me that it is silly to drive hard bargains with someone to whom five or ten rupees means so much more than it does to me. I finally learned that it was not money that was important to him, it was the success, or rather the need to prove himself. With his actions, he emphasized to me the importance of honesty, education, reading, hard work, perseverance, and continuous self-improvement. He taught me interpersonal skills and the importance of good communication. I get my English skills from him and to this day I feel the best compliment that I receive on my writing is that it is on par with his.

Above all, I realized that he gave me something that I had taken so much for granted because I have never lived without it – freedom and independence. In the 80s and 90s in Chennai, India, I had so much more freedom than girls in Chennai have even today. He never made me feel that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something just because I was a girl. All around me, I had friends who were treated differently than their brothers at home but I never felt that way. It was a shock to me when I grew up and realized that not all girls had the freedom that I took for granted. At age 20, he trusted me to go off to Australia by myself to study what I wanted.

In the past four years, I was blessed with the opportunity to live in his house once again. The experience brought us closer than we have ever been. We had long conversations that made me understand and learn so much more. I continue to learn from him every day. Someday, I hope to have the same simple and implicit faith that he has in the divine. A college friend of mine once told me that I would grow to change my opinion of my dad later in life and she was right about that. I am just glad that I got to know him and cherish him before it was too late. I know that I am incredibly blessed because I have some close friends who did not have that time with their dads. With all that I know now, I feel their loss even more deeply.

To my much-misunderstood father: I love you.

-AB