Archive for August, 2009

Loss of control

My first thought was that he must be very hot. Black jeans, black denim jacket, black baseball cap. And sitting in a black wheelchair, in full sun. The whiteness of his big sneakers and of the T-shirt visible through the open front of his jacket was dazzling. There was no one with him. Despite the location—near the intersection of two busy streets in the heart of Boston’s hospital district—there was a pool of emptiness on the sidewalk around him.

It was something about the motions of his arms, the tilt of his head that caught my attention as I sat in traffic across the road, headed the opposite way. It was the sudden shift from determination to angry frustration. He threw up his arms in a gesture of defeat, his hands shot out of his sleeves, and it was then that I realized he had been using the thick material to protect his palms as he grasped the inner, metal rim of the wheels. Now he tried again, this time applying his bare hands to coax the wheelchair to move forward. It resisted. I noticed that one of the smaller front wheels had somehow swiveled to be perpendicular to his desired trajectory, no doubt pushed out of place by the uneven brickwork of the sidewalk.

The light was still red, but I was two lanes of traffic in. I could not get out to help him. There was nowhere for my car to go, nowhere to park it. I looked around to see if there was anyone nearby to whom I could call out. Still no one. This quiet moment of despair was taking place in a near vacuum. Only I was witnessing it. A man pushed open a door to a storefront just a few feet away from the wheelchair, then quickly retreated as though he had forgotten something. The man in the chair gently placed one of his feet on the ground, tried to exert some force, then grimaced. He folded his arms and sat back. What the fuck am I supposed to do? his body asked.

The light turned, the cars in front of me moved ahead. I drove slowly through the intersection, scanning the pedestrians gathered at the corner, hoping to find one who would hear me if I shouted “Could you help the guy in the chair back there, please?” A young couple embraced. A doctor in scrubs pulled out his beeper. A woman gesticulated and spoke loudly into her phone. A frazzled mother pulled her toddler from the edge of the sidewalk. The car behind me honked, and then I was a hundred feet past the wheelchair. I considered pulling over in the no-stopping-anytime zone, but the urgent siren of an ambulance sounded, and I was swept into the motion of the cars hurrying forward and to the side to avoid it.

I continued on my way, flooded with memories of personal moments of helpless, angry frustration. I wished that, if nothing else, the man had at least known that someone saw his predicament, someone wanted to help. I wondered if this was a temporary confinement, or the beginning of a long journey. I figured he was in his thirties. Later, driving up a street in Cambridge, I sat at another light. Two slim adolescent girls in short shorts and T-shirts walked past me in the sunshine, laughing, their shiny straight hair dancing on their backs. The pedestrian signal started its countdown from ten and they pranced across the street in front of me like fillies.

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I’ve come to the conclusion that if I have not settled down to the day’s major activity by 9:30 am, I’m doomed. The day is destined to fritter away and disappear through my fingers. Nine thirty may seem to many like still early in the day, but no, really, it isn’t. You see, it’s half way between nine and ten. (I know, Earth-shattering, no? Bear with me.) At nine, there are still so many opportunities for the day. It is the start of the proverbial “nine to five” measure of time. Four full hours until lunch time, in theory. But by 10 am, everything has changed. It is mid-morning. Lunchtime, really, is more like noon when one has breakfast at 7:30. Suddenly, at 10 am, it feels like one has to rush to get something done by lunchtime. At least, I do. So 9:30 is the breaking point, the point of no return.

Take this morning, for example. I came home from dropping K off at preschool, and decided I would get straight to work, but then I realized I really needed to water the porch plants because we’re having scorching weather, and the only convenient way to fill up the large watering can is to place it in in the sink, but of course the sink was full of breakfast dishes, so they needed to be moved into the dishwasher, but the dishwasher was full of clean dishes (again) so first I had to empty it. Familiar scenario. Then once the plants were watered I came back in and got annoyed that the back door was being semi-blocked by two bags of trash that needed to be taken down. So I took them downstairs, and got agitated by the over-grownness of the “garden.” Just to get around to the trash bins and pull them out, I had to to hack through a thick tangle of thorny weeds and dried, pokey lily stalks and overly tall, thin plants which happily released their spores as I brushed by, and pungent-smelling vines dripping with ominous pods. So I came back upstairs and got some gardening gloves and a clipper and ruthlessly trimmed the whole walk-way, which took half an hour, and because it was already extremely hot and muggy I got very sweaty, and so decided I needed to shower before I could get to work. Then I decided that perhaps I should first check in with my friend Amanda with whom I am supposed to get together with K after school, because if we end up doing something out of doors, I might as well wait until the evening to shower. So I called her, and got involved in a chat with her. When we hung up, I did shower, and by the time I sat down at my computer it was 10:15. And then I fell into the trap of checking the news (just until 10:30, ok?) and of course became side-tracked. And here we are at 11:35, and I teeter on the edge of throwing in the towel and setting about to attack one of the many and much needed house-reorganizing tasks, but NO! I will not. I can accomplish something in the next hour before lunch. Here I go. Whee!  (Wait, what are all these crumbs doing under the table? Don’t they need to be swept up?) But tomorrow, I’m at work at 9:00. For sure.

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Me me me

A few weeks ago, there was an article in the New York times about a new book that irked me. A Caucasian woman who spent some time in India and studied Hindi has written about her experiences. I’ve no problem with that, of course. I am, I’ll admit, jealous to some extent. Of the publication part. I’ll admit it freely. It’s petty, but there it is. But the real problem to me, the larger one, is that this is part of a genre, and it’s the popularity of the whole genre that confounds me.

Take, for example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Big sensation, right? Woman in her thirties leaves a troubled marriage and goes to find herself and the answers to her questions in India, Italy and Indonesia. A coincidence that they all start with the letter “I?” My mother looked at a page at random and counted 35 instances of the words “I,” “me” and “my.” Me me me me! Read all about me! Her book is a bestseller. This new one, about the Hindi learner, is on Oprah’s summer reading list.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this is fantastic for them. They took the initiative, put in a lot of work, had some good luck, and are, I hope, happy. Most impressively, they knew how to peg the market, and what niche to target. But I ask myself, and you: why am I bothering to research and write a series that will bring to light kathak dance, a 2,000 year old classical artistic tradition—its beauty and richness and complexity and historical, political and social significance?

Why don’t I write about being a half-white, half-Asian American raised in Paris? I could riff on the multi-culti theme. Why don’t I write about the year I spent in the posh, ultra-strict, Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay, where by some strange alignment of circumstances I found myself one of the small handful of white-looking kids, and the only non-rich one, amidst a sea of Indian elite who had their hot tiffin lunches brought to them by their servants while I munched on soggy cheese sandwiches? I could wax eloquent on isolation, misunderstanding, teen-age angst in a (semi-) foreign land. But I find myself returning to the same question: who cares? I mean, really, who cares? And if someone does, then why? Maybe if I can figure these things out, I’ll get that call, the one for which I have my fingers crossed. In the meantime, my manuscript languishes, in bits and pieces—two chapters here, a query and synopsis there—Out There.

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