Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Toast by Madama Sebastian

But it’s not how I imagined it! 

How YOU imagined it?  Well, poor you!  YOU aren’t the one who is dying.

I can’t believe you won’t at least fight.

Fight what?  Who?  I’m 83 and can’t get out of this bed to do anything without an escort.  That includes a lot of things other people shouldn’t be able to see me do.  You can get up and go when you want. 

But, giving up isn’t the answer.

It’s not your answer but there’s a difference between giving up and being alright with things, honey.

You’re going.

Yes, I am. Look at me!  Is this the way you want to think of me?  Tucked in this bed like a broken pocket watch?  That’s not what I want.  I miss being able to read to myself and seeing a different view than a parking lot.  My body won’t move the way I want.

I’m losing you.

To death…but how is this a surprise?  Did you forget I’m supposed to go before you?  Stop this. Aren’t you the one who should be making me feel better?  I’m the one with two months left on the clock.

You should try.

Let me tell you what, my healthy young child…

I’m 19.

Oh, if my big toe could just be 19, I might change my mind!  Honey!  I’ve been where you are but you don’t know what its like to be me.  Your bones and joints don’t argue and bite.  Your heart can take whatever joys and sorrows are around the corner and your mind, your mind has so much more room in it than mine.  You have your own teeth!

You want to die because of dentures?  You’re not that old!

Compared to what?  How old should I be?  Did you have something in mind?  If I promise to make it to 92 like Mrs. Petrofsky down the hall? Bed pans and dementia and she thinks she’s still teaching third grade.  All she can say is multiplication tables!   Would that be enough? Yes, I absolutely want you to be able to tell someone I fought till the end!  The hell with that.  I refuse to be neat and tidy about it.  I’m tired.

So…rest until you feel better.  You’re having a bad day.

A good day was before they put me here.  I’ve been resting two years in this place and there is no “better.”  When the nurses talk about “better” they’re comparing yesterday’s poop to today’s poop.  This is only about surviving long enough so my relatives don’t feel guilty. 

If you would just….

Hang on?  Please tell me the what and the why of that!  Little one, I had a good life.  I did mostly as I pleased, had some wonderful friends, one alright husband and one that was a bastard.  Outlived them both, too.  I traveled and read and laughed.  I danced them down at the Legion on Locust Lane.  There isn’t any mountain I would climb now even if I had the ability. 

Nobody wants you to climb a mountain.  They just want you to live.

For them…they want me to live for them.  This is not living, not my version.  If you don’t believe me, please trade places with me for just one day.  I’m sure Nurse Ratchet out there will be happy to introduce you to the enema bag. 

You must be feeling better.  You’re making jokes.

Honey!  Look at me.  I’m done with this and I want to be done with this.

Don’t say that!

Why not?  I’m fine with death.  It’s everybody else who wants me to avoid it.


Have I ever told you how to live, Sweetheart?


I mean besides trying to teach you some things. Have I?


Then please do me the favor of NOT telling me how to die.  Death doesn’t scare me.  Dying…that might hurt, being on the way out but, once I get there, I don’t think it will be that bad.

I can’t hear this!

You better hear it because it’s what I want and how I feel.  If it disappoints you I’m sorry.  I don’t want you to feel sad.

Thinking about death makes me sad.

Really?  I guess I remember feeling that once, but now I think death could be a relief.  All this talking and breathing and trying—that old skin smell.  Ahhhhckkk,  enough!

No, it’s….

…fine, honey.  I’m not going out in a big way or anything.  I’m just going to put my mind to it.  It’s worked for everything else I ever wanted to do.  Hopefully, if I’m good at this, I can drop off in my sleep.

Don’t talk like that!

Why?  Isn’t that how everybody else in the world really wants to die?  Who cares about all the particulars?  Life and death are not like in the movies—deep last words to remember me by and nice hair.  It’s nothing like that.

But I love you, Mammy.

Me, too Honey…I love you very much and all of this, all this is the way it’s supposed to go.  You didn’t think I’d be around forever, did you?

Yes….well, a lot longer than this.

Please don’t make me stay.  I’m due a good nap, one that isn’t interrupted every four hours by pain and pills for the pain.  I need the peace.  Do you remember what I used to make you for breakfast before your mother got up?

Tea and toast. 

Yep…I can’t have either one of those any more, thanks to the damn doctor.

Want me to get you some?

Would you?

Only if it’s got a lot of milk and we can dunk the toast in the tea.

It sounds delicious.

The doctor won’t like it.

You better hurry up, honey.  It’s quarter till and the coffee shop doesn’t serve breakfast after 9.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Lost and Found

“Where are my keys?”

A whole family question that James dad asked at least once a week. A question hoping for answers it didn’t get from the back room where James mother separated the unmentionables from the clothes you could talk about, from the upstairs bathroom where his sister committed early crimes of beauty or from the back steps where James sat now.

James knew where the keys were supposed to be—on top of the hall table with the inkless pens, partly gone-over fruit, the math book with unreasonable fractions, overstretched hair bands, and the dusty cardinal

salt n pepper shakers that his mother only used on red-themed holidays.

Next to and just above this scatter of unrelated things made by related people was a key hanger from Aunt Cindy, a rectangular plaque with metal hooks and “Keys” carved or maybe burnt into the wood, perhaps so it might never be mistaken for a tie rack. The only keys hanging on it were to things that were lost or broken. Despite its nearly vacant purpose, Aunt Cindy’s gift would not be removed, not as long as she came to visit and would notice. IF there was a next Aunt Cindy visit, now that James parents had decided to be-apart-for-awhile-because-they-had-to-think-about-things-James.

“Keys? Little help…anybody?”

His father sounded more needle-y now as if turning up his voice would guarantee a response. It didn’t. James thought about another easier time when no one knew where the keys were. His sister found them in the refrigerator lying right on top of the mozzarella. “Moz-za-REL-la,” James spoke a little bit out loud. It was a good word to say, especially all by itself with no other words near it, the best was the “REL” part. “Moz-za-REL-la,” James repeated as he walked away from the house of unanswered questions and into a morning shined up by the night’s rain. He thought the thoughts of a boy on his own time….

…Like how good cereal tastes when you first put milk on it but doesn’t even one minute later when the milk gets too far into it. How balloons lose a lot of air even if you keep them in your room in the closet and nobody touches them overnight. How cats could change their minds about liking you in two seconds but dogs couldn’t. And then, because his sneaker lace loops were too big, James tripped and fell.

James didn’t cry. In 4th grade the ground isn’t such a long way to fall yet and besides, no one was around to see. Instead, James took the accidental opportunity to get where he already wanted to go which was level with a cool, soaked earth. A water bug danced on a puddle nearby. James tried to go eye to eye with it until he realized he didn’t know where its bug eyes were. Before he could figure it out, the bug lifted off into sunlight too bright to show James where it went. He accepted it with unselfconscious awe and no regret.

James sneaker was already up to the next thing, toeing a hole into the wet ground two paces beyond Mr. Murphy’s crabapple bush. The number of paces was how a pirate gave directions to his long buried treasure. Paces were Genius! to James because, even if a dirty map thief came along, the only way he could find the treasure is if he had the exact same size feet as the pirate who buried it. James didn’t need a map because his feet wouldn’t be the same size next year as they were today and because he didn’t want to come back.

The dirt of the treasure hole got drier as it got deeper and more stubborn. James put his full attention into the work, his young brow decorated with scuds of dirt and sweat-made mud wiped from the back of his hands.

He wanted the keys to go away for good, to trust this hole with no reminders of how to find it again. Because if the keys disappeared without paces or pirates, even if James had to hide his stealing inside for all eternity plus one day, it would all be worth it to keep his dad…home asking whole family questions, in regular and sharp tones if he wanted, on or off holidays with red themes and salt n pepper birds. The keys dropped from James hand like the last tear of someone tired crying, down into a hole that had to be quiet forever.

As James was covering the keys as fast as he could so he could begin to forget where they were, his father stopped asking questions. Instead, James father began looking and feeling among the still life of discards on the hall table. In the time it takes to break a heart, he lifted the math book of unreasonable fractions and picked up his wife’s extra set of keys.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Water and Stone by Madama Sebastian

Steve folded in on himself and cried. There were a whole lot of rules getting broken just by doing that sitting at his desk, but regular Steve wasn’t in charge of this event, not this time.

None of his coworkers really knew what to do. Steve was always the guy with the rigid issues about personal space, physical and otherwise. He never cracked jokes or offered stories about his weekends. Most of the office had no idea if Steve was married or single or straight or gay or what. He just showed up and did what he did pretty well and went home. Some of the more social beings tried a few times to get him to go out after work, but consistent, polite rejections made sure it didn’t take long before they quit asking. Right now, seeing Mr. Don’t-Rock-My-Boat have a moment was a moment in itself.

Denial would have worked pretty well as a collective remedy to this office convulsion had Steve’s sobs not reached a new depth that got harder to ignore. Somebody finally went to the boss to tell. In a few carefully calculated moments, the boss came out. “Anything wrong…uh..Steve?”

Regular Steve might have said “Yes, but its personal” and that would have absolved everybody from everything. In truth, this situation could never have happened because regular Steve would never have cried at his desk, at the water cooler or even alone in his car at the lowest, darkest spot of the parking garage. This other guy, who looked like a deflated twin brother, had nothing to say that fell outside body language. No words at all, just tears.

The boss broke briefly through Steve’s fourth wall to pat his shoulder. “Well, I hope whatever it is, that everything turns out okay,” and knowing that Steve wouldn’t ask, he added, “ If you need anything, just ask.” Couldn’t get more PC than that! It covered every base—disease, death, stress, heartbreak-- the works. Just the right generic sincerity, too. Having moved the employee relations needle, the boss went away to wherever bosses go to make more money than Steve.

Steve had enough control over his own commotion now to reduce some of the volume but not the leaks. Mortification set in when he realized he had started to sound like a small child pulling his cries inside to appease an exasperated adult—huffing air into his chest in short, backward and far too noisy leaps.

Around the same cubicle wall that Steve used as fortification until the last 15 minutes of his life, came a hand and a glass. “Here’s some water.” Steve took it because he needed it and because it worked. He felt the sobs smooth out until it seemed like he could think again. When he turned to deliver a thank you, the hand had already disappeared. No empathetic face. No inquisition. Just hand, water, gone.

Grief or no grief, this was a loose end that had not been tied up and the whole secret to regular Steve’s long standing record of reticence was making sure those ends had big, tight knots. Unused “thank you’s” had to be spoken or else Steve would owe somebody. Even this Steve, who could have probably used a human touch now more than anyone in the entire city, couldn’t let a take go without a give. He rubbernecked around the cubicle wall. Nobody home. Nobody in evidence of being home, either. No kids’ pictures, cute calendars or doodles. Empty.

Steve tried to back track. Was it a man’s voice? A woman’s hand? Perfume? A sleeve? He 3-60-ed the office. Nobody’s eyes dared meet his for fear of accidentally setting off some uneasy spout of male tears. Steve’s water giver was out there. It could have been any one of them. Steve didn’t know, wouldn’t guess and couldn’t ask. He had become an un-reciprocating taker, which didn’t completely eliminate the ten foot pole Steve carried around. It just sort of snapped it in half.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Elizabeth Christopher by Madama Sebastian

Bessie Christopher wasn’t rich, married or young when I met her, even though my mother said she had once been all three. My mother also said that Bessie went quiet and crazy after her husband died in the same war my dad lived through. It seemed to me that 30 years was an awful long time to be either one.

Happy with her long ago past, Bessie was reminded by widowhood and infirmity that she no longer lived in it, so she dedicated proof of better times to the walls of her home. In every room, she had photographs of good looking Teddy Christopher, her Greek restaurant entrepreneur. As a kid, I didn’t find Teddy nearly as fascinating as the garden in which he was buried…on Bessie’s wallpaper.

Bessie’s walls told that she was equally wild for her husband, flowers and the color blue. Each Mid-Atlantic summer, her front yard swayed with old fashioned posies. In the off season, the interior walls, papered with immense hydrangeas, made up for what the garden couldn’t grow. Teddy’s photographs withered black and white against generous sapphire.

It was no wonder that Teddy’s best pictures seemed coziest on Bessie’s pedestal table. Everybody had one of those tables--tall, single pillared wood and high polish, the kind of table that you would never profane with foolishness. My parents had JFK and Pope John Paul II sharing a tatted memorial doily on their pedestal table which led to a fair childhood assumption that the only people who got displayed were 1) dead and preferably 2) martyred. I had no idea how qualified he was, but in Bessie’s house, Teddy got a doily all to himself.

Bessie’s tiny home, where she had been without Teddy for so long, sat at the back of her property. All her neighbors’ homes perched at the front of theirs, making it seem like Bessie’s house was shy or too good to mingle. It wasn’t true. She liked being away from the noisy street and having a private view of the perennials first set down in the earth by the man who only ever called her Elizabeth, but Bessie and the house were as warm and welcoming as any I’d ever visited.

Her last long decades were spent alone. Bessie ambled room to room, a little more slowly each year, looking out windows that all faced the garden. She could often be found in a soft covered rocker on the back porch…thanking her beloved out loud for leaving behind the blooms of blue and wishing in her crazy quiet that he was there, so she could still have all the things she was wild about…….

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lessons Un-Remembered by Madama Sebastian

A mind can be a messy attic that doesn’t take kindly to cleaning. Yard sale thoughts are jammed in the same memory box with fine antiques. The lyrics of every nonsense song since 1964 are crystal stamps in my mind, but conjure and concentrate as I might, I cannot recall the sound of my grandmother’s voice.

And what is the use of half a memory? Almost hearing her voice, thin and far, coming and going is a tug of war with a cobweb that has become more ragged with each pull. If I am only halfway to remembering, then why not just let me forget?

Apparently the mind is an autocrat who doesn’t like being a storehouse of mostly ignored things. When we try to extract something, the mind often shoves the memory of stink ahead of perfume. It may splatter us with multiple memories, altering the speed at which we remember them. Those remembrances we had hoped would linger, fizzle. Tormenting thoughts we wish would pass quickly, stay unbearably long.

I may not be able to hear my grandmother’s voice, but I am still a child of her child and I know my grandmother was more wise than clever. She didn’t need me to remember her voice. If she did, she would have found a way for me to do it. My grandmother knew the tricks of the monkey mind.

Her version of a life lesson was the imprint of experience. Other than safety precautions, my grandmother generally dispensed with excessive words, especially instructions, and offered her buffet of wisdom disguised as fun.

Much to my mother’s horror and maybe in spite of it, my grandmother often served me tea and toast for breakfast because she knew I liked the taste of the buttered bread after I dunked it. She watch me hour after patient hour, dragging around in her old Roaring 20s high heels. She’d upend an old silk lined suitcase from a back shelf and fill my afternoons with elbow length gloves, gobs of brooches, screw back earrings and hats with veils. In the evenings, she soft brushed my busy, tangled hair and would send me to sleep with the most gentle and marvelous scuffing of her fingertips across the inside of my arm.

What she gave me were not so many words to remember her by. Instead, she offered me, both lovingly and willingly, the ability to know my own senses. That, she knew, is a doing, not a remembering.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Warshing Aromatica by Madama Sebastian

My mother would hang her laundry outside in winter.

Half a foot of Pennsylvania snow did not deter Anne from Washday Monday in her ankle boots, subduing half-frozen bed sheets with a precise number and spacing of clothespins. She’d often have one or two extra, emergency pins tucked in the corner of her mouth. From the kitchen window she looked like a poorly dressed Churchill smoking spring-loaded wooden cigars, scowling with focus.

Never did anyone question my mother’s laundry regimen, including my grandmother who was the source of the Masonic-like secrets of bluing and pre-soaking. But, her daughter and my mother, Anne believed that a good defense should not be wasted waiting for a good offense. “Fresh air kills germs!” she’d announce above the wind forgetting that, at no time in memory, had she ever tossed a flu ridden family member into the maw of winter for the same cure.

Boots stomped snow less, Anne would make her way inside to the warm air good enough to breathe but not good enough to dry dads work shirts. She straightaway filled the kitchen sink with cool and then warmer water, dunking her ice-stiff red and white hands in much the same manner that she used to speed-thaw a chicken. Anne’s winter war face had been replaced by a high, healthy pink—her glowing reward for besting winter’s worst in the name of a fresh, clean smell.

It was only later in life that I remembered that smell because it was missing. Headstrong technology and a timesaver generation had machine-dried and drained away the vivid scent of the natural world that my mother had worked so hard to infuse in our daily fabrics.

Unless provoked by reoccurrence, it is not easy to remember a smell. It takes all four remaining senses to engage this fifth one: An August scorched little girl half hearing a bedtime story under crackly-cool sheets. A shivery winter bath and stepping into the hug of my grandmother holding my princess towel cloak. The smell returned, for just a moment, whole and full. I had the fresh air that killed germs next to my skin.

As pleasant a memory as that was, for many years more, I acquiesced. Dryers after the advent of dryer sheets were too easy to use to ignore. I was not a child. It was just a smell. Clotheslines became tacky and even illegal eyesores in some American neighborhoods. And then I moved to India where…

…soaped clothes were hard-slapped on laundry stones or sometimes spun dry, begging for a slow bake finish in the sun. Flag fat saris hung and snapped from every porch and rooftop. Clotheslines were acceptable, innumerable, irreplaceable. The toil of washing inconvenience had returned. With it, outside came inside once more.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Do Not Poke the Bear by Madama Sebastian

Marriage is not simple in any country, but it can be simplified.

Where I live in Chennai, India, marriages are often arranged. Parents, with a maturity that rises above the fluctuating young adult hormones, do most of the arranging. Indian parents want their children to marry someone with potential. Potential translates to the proper age, religion, skin tone, caste, family history, degree, career and cash total in the bank. Compatibility and love are acquired through and during marriage, not necessarily considered pre-requisites.

Americans could borrow from Indian tradition. Not that I see US parents taking over the mate choosing process for their children. For better or worse, Americans have been marrying by personal choice far too long for that. There is a chance, though, that a left continent marriage might last longer by taking a cue from the East--by developing spouse-to-be checklists. If you’re wincing because the idea feels a little like more like being bred than wed, take a closer look at our own culture.

When you are buying a car, you research, watch interest rates, study advertising, scrutinize gas mileage, inhabit salespeople-free car lots on Sundays and kick all the tires including the spare. A dollar bill will not be released from your wallet until a car passes your full inspection. Now, if we’re that picky about an investment that lasts, at most, a decade, we should be down right fanatics about scoping out partners we will share morning breath with for more than half a century.

A checklist couldn’t hurt. It may seem a bit clinical to write down what you need in a spouse but later when the clouds of love fog your right mind, you may thank yourself. In the rush of passion, you will still be able to point to the list and see that “Yes, I CAN live with a snorer!”

If you intend to travel through life with another, may I suggest that you include somewhere near the top of your checklist: Must Wake Up Well. . I am hope-to-die-if-I’m-lyin’ serious. A spouse who wakes up pleasantly is one who cannot and should not be replaced. I am fortunate to have such a specimen as a husband.

The instant his sleep-weighted eyes open, he smiles and it is not usually a gastric event. It is the way he is--ready to meet the moving world and deal with daylight, birdsong and barking dogs. I, the womb-shaped introvert, beg the night gods for five more long minutes of quiet, please. Waking represents responsibility I refuse to handle just yet and I look the part, too with eyes stuck at half mast and movement by the millimeter.

My husband is aware that it is beyond a serious infraction to attempt to hurry me to wakefulness. The following are forbidden: jolting, poking, any form of dog saliva and most evil summoning of all, tickling. If caffeine is not quickly forthcoming, a disturbing back-throated ggaaaaaaaaaaawwww is emitted--the warning of a hibernating bear forced too early from her cave, pawing blindly at the burst and chatter of sun and noise. Meanwhile somewhere else in the house, my husband climbs steps, waters plants, dances to music, and sometimes even uses electrical appliances or lights matches. This is from a man who was dead to the waking world just five minutes ago.

My husband’s willingness to accept full and immediate consciousness and actually enjoy it may be his greatest quality. That he is also capable of coping with a person who is stubbornly unwilling is a solid second.

People who carpe noctem absolutely require people who carpe diem. Just in case you might be taking notes…..…………

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Books by Madama Sebastian

Dreaming about having occupies a good deal of time in most people’s lives. Even the most humble individual wants something. World peace or maybe just a fair shot for everybody. The rest of us aspire to humility and a peaceful planet, too, but beyond being another member of the “We Are the World” chorus, what we really also desire is something or someone to call our own. Cars are big on wish lists; so are things like owning a home, falling in love, having kids, big career, and lots of pocket change. So, like most Americans, I shamelessly pursued my constitutional happiness and here’s what scored high marks on my self-o-meter.

A library.

I have dreamed of being surrounded by books, a collection of my life’s readings. None of the books would be pristine. They couldn’t be, because a loved book knows my hand sweat and endures my corner creasing, side notes and spine bending habits. The Dewey Decimal System just wouldn’t factor in. Dr. Seuss and Tolstoy might share the same shelf for all I care and I guarantee you that neither of them would care. Books only want to be read. None have ever begged to be alphabetized.

The library I lust for has thick, dark wood doors that hush the noise and whisper “I know you”. Shelves would be deep and oiled and the very un-library like chairs would be fat and round with special pillows designed for heads that often droop around Chapter 4 toward sleep. Ginger tea would be in a hot pot close at hand. I’d especially like floor-to-ceiling, sideways-rolling ladders to get to the highest shelves and occasionally would charge kids a nickel just to ride them. If I was still a kid, I’d pay.

The most important consideration of all, of course, are the books themselves--the words of others that might be mine. For these, I would be very particular. Before any book could be placed properly in this library, it would first pass through my hands by way of my heart. No acquaintances in here, only long time friends, some more useful than others, but friends all the same. I would have to know them all and judge none of them, and, by the marks I leave on them, they would know me.

I don’t have this library of dreams. I’ve loved and lost and found books, again and again, all through my reading life. The trappings now seem secondary compared to the deliverance I found in those pages.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Long and The Short of It by Madama Sebastian

My kitchen in India is about 15 feet long and 12 feet tall. Wide, it’s not. I bet if I stretched my husband horizontally in the air, his feet would touch one wall and his hands the other, soles and palms flat. My spouse is not short, but that’s still one skinny kitchen. In decorating magazines they call it a galley kitchen and then snicker later.

No cupboards, just open granite slab shelves. Hold your awe. Granite is as common here as uhm, rock. I have no oven, either--not in the conventional sense. Truth be known, I have never even seen a conventional oven in India. But, I do have a gas fired, two burner stove top. All you need to add is a sharp stick and Kumbaya and you’re camping.

There is the toaster oven. Go ahead and poke fun. You don’t even know where your toaster oven is. The last time you toasted a piece of bread in a toaster oven was 1983 and you only did it once because it took too long and it was cramping your food processor.

My mother’s kitchen wasn’t big either but she had an official and much preferred gas oven. She even had a toaster oven which she didn’t use to cook. She felt it did a better job holding up the phone book. Mom was no gourmet cook but if you were talking basics—meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, potatoes in any form, roasted meats, two spice (one being pepper) meals--she consistently had it down.

My mother often tried to involve me in her cooking, but as a daughter coming into her prime teenage years in the early 70’s, I was far too busy burning my training bra to care. I vowed to avoid the kitchen for life. I also vowed to co-habitate with Mick Jagger, dethrone Nixon, and make a difference.

Nixon’s gone and so is mom. I occasionally cook now, not in her memory, but when I am inspired. Mom’s recipes were all in her head anyway and mine are from the internet. She cleaned my clock in the kitchen and she didn’t have any more conveniences to cook food with than I do now. She had the touch and the time. I have a galley and Google.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mirror Mirror by Madama Sebastian

I want my husband’s Indian skin. I want to unzip it and try on a darker background. I envy him moving around in full mastery of his cloak of sun, gold and chocolate. I feel like I am an American winter, the moon, a poached egg.

Think how wonderful it would be to change skin tone at will! An old wardrobe would look entirely new. I could span every season of Color Me Beautiful. Just let me make the jump from my day skin to his night!

My preference for duskiness probably began with swarthy Rhett You-Know-Who. Ricardo’s rich Corinthian leather. Yul Brynner’s hot top knot and biblical bully boy attitude. A desperado called Antonio with leather pants and a dangerous guitar. All irresistibly bronze.

What is it with a tan? Is it that the sheen of summer dusk magnifies American robustness? I could be reaching but, it seems almost patriotic to glorify lost summer love in tanning salons with bronzers, sprays, lotions and potions. Here, take my money and give me amber #2.

Skip now to my husband’s home of India where, as far as I know, tanning salons do not exist. Indian skin is generally darker than Caucasian skin, although with just as many nuances of brown, beige and black as there are shades of pink, yellow and blue in paler complexions.

Skin products are as popular in India as the US. The intended effect, however, is totally opposite. The more fair you are, the more desirable, creditworthy, hire-able, loveable and valued you are. Truthfully, skin lightening creams don’t actually seem to erase color as much as fade it. But psychologically it works very well because, in India, all is fair in becoming fair. The fight is to block out the sun is just as strong as the American obsession to welcome it.

Fortunately my husband appreciates my white skin but I don’t think he covets it. At least I don’t think so. He likes winter and looking at the moon and he really likes eggs.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Yoga Day One by Madama Sebastian


Curiosity and a desire for a change in my workout routine led me into a yoga class about 6 years ago. Since the class was free as part of a gym membership, I thought it would be a good way to add flexibility to the weight training and treadmill exercises I had already been doing. Sampling a class, I was sure, could tell me all I needed to know.

The lights in the yoga room were turned down, a restful feeling after a work out beneath the gym’s fluorescents. The floor space within the room was carpeted with colorful, spongy mats slotted neatly parallel. The yoga students were mostly women, of no particular age or size, but I noticed that the ones who looked experienced moved like the edges of full leaves cuffed by a soft wind.

Some yoga students, free of shoes and wearing loose fitting garments, were stretching waists and necks and legs comfortably. Some were talking together in a quiet way dimming their voices to match the lighting. Without introduction, the teacher entered the room and closed the door, cutting off the excess noise and my only escape. With the signature Indian sound of a tabla drum, I began to feel a low fever. I did what all trapped human animals do…I rationalized. My maximum investment was an hour and a half. Weird things scar but don’t kill. I stayed put.

My yoga teacher was thin, short, female and Indian. Meena did not smile but simply went to her mat and announced that we would begin. No debate invited. Her voice, unlike her severe manner, feathered across the room, a notch above a dear friend’s whisper, intertwining with and lifting the music. I hear her still, rising to a quiet command as I did my best to follow.

Those 90 minutes did not change my life but it did call me back and I went.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

When You Feel Like You Need A Raise by Madama Sebastian

Not long ago the BIG boss from New York came for a visit to our satellite office in India. It was a brief visit of two days, part of his quarterly global trek to hit all the company's Asian back office sites. He was penciled in for a dizzy schedule of jet lag and meetings.

I don't know this guy very well. At this company, you aren't supposed to know the boss very well. He's quite a few years younger than me even if he is quite a few dollars more to the positive. Maybe early 30s, I'm guessing, and a multi-millionaire to boot. Not bad according to the standards of success in America.

The night I met him he was just coming in the office door having been taken out by a driver for a late meal. It was about 2:30am which is part of a regular outsourced office day on this side of the world. The CEO looked flushed and breathless as I extended my hand. For all the world, he appeared to be a man caught with both hands in the cookie jar rather than the vital bloodline of a giant company. I asked if anything was wrong.

The CEO told me that he had asked his driver if he could just get out and walk for a few minutes. Having been stuck on a plane for days, he wanted a stretch. Missing his daily jog, perhaps. On this night, it just so happened that his idea of a breath of fresh air attracted a gang of Indian street dogs, always hungry and wondering why a lone pale guy was speed walking through their territory. They barked and he ran. The louder the dogs howled, the more distance the CEO tried to gain. He was unsuccessful, surrounded and helpless until the driver, who was near at hand, shooed the dogs away.

I could picture this well-suited American captain of industry on the bleak, humid road with the street dogs following fast, then pinning him in the center of a circle. It wasn't that he was a weak prey or smelled of food. "They knew," he said.
I nodded but asked inside, "What did they know?"

Hearing him recover his uneven breath, seeing his too wide eyes, I realized had become a witness to waning fear. It was evident the young millionaire had scanned his mental MBA training manual and came up short on what he should have done instead of what he did do. He knew how to make a dollar, many dollars but he was clearly as uncertain of himself as a driver whose brand new car takes a big, scary skid. The CEO lived to tell the tale and that was a victory, but there was something more in his face. Doubt. Should have's. He stared beyond me as he spoke, fascinated and occupied, as if the trial of peril he had just endured was a short film rolling again and again in his head.

From the outside, the man was a king of his professional hill. The practiced poise, the succinct words and the correct business judgment calls were all there but so was the flash of another more awkward and much younger man. I kept thinking that the full fledged, envied adult before me had just retro-ed to a time when he wasn't so sure or so rich. A time when peer pressure squeezed him a little too hard. I wanted to ask about this, but of course, I didn't. He was still reminding with body language that he was once, and could still be, vulnerable to things that money and power didn't insulate him from.

With all due speed, relying on his status as a world citizen and an important one at that, he visibly pulled himself together. His high color and slightly off kilter clothes were the only leftover signs that he had been, moments before, running for his life. Within one minute he had fully reclaimed his outward stature as boss-in-control, although I was just about the only one left in the office to notice.

The rest of our shared words were unimportant. My parting thoughts weren't about a man of wealth or fame who had done good early and was probably set for life. I thought about the guy who ran away. The rest of the work night passed quickly and at home, I had an excellent breakfast which I shared in good spirits with my husband and companions, two Indian street dogs.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The French Toast Equation by Madama Sebastian

The French Toast Equation by Madama Sebastian

As my American family and friends prepare for a sizable February snowstorm this weekend, I sit in balmy India feeling a disquieting longing to be in a Pennsylvania food store elbowing some cell-phone engaged, slow-on-the-draw type out of the way to snap up the last loaf of bread on the shelf.

I hail from Harrisburg--a tribe of four season people who know how to hunker down and hoard in the face of a coming natural event. For the uninitiated, when dairy products are elevated to the status of lifeblood by a forecast of 60% or more snow probability, there erupts an inborn Harrisburg-er-ian-ites fierceness that would make the Super Bowl look like just...a game.

Scientists have puzzled for minutes over this twisted Central PA variation of flight or fight. In fact, authorities have coined a phrase for it--The French Toast Equation, first discovered by the eminent psycho-linguist and recluse, Dr.GreatScott. Unfamiliar? No surprise. Most people from not here have never heard of it. The formula is complicated, a 3-blackboard long affair both wide in depth and deep in width. It's got a lot of numbers and letters in it. In the most primitive dumb-down, The French Toast Equation is the direct relationship between milk, bread, and eggs and the number of inches of snowfall in any given 24 hour period in Central PA.

Dr. GreatScott and his brother Notso fielded a tremendous number of scientific arguments about the parameters of The French Toast Equation: Did it matter if the milk was fat free? Could the bread include the word "Stroehman's" somewhere on the label? Would double yolk eggs count twice? The most debated questions: How many dairy products per capita are enough to sustain life in a 7-to-12 inch blizzard? Could the snow fall tally only qualify if it fell above the PA Turnpike? And, the oft-queried "IS vanilla really optional?"

Had you had your scientific radar turned up and tuned in this week, you might have found symptoms, immediately noticeable just after a foreshadowing by the dentally challenged but media-respected Punxatawny Phil. In Harrisburg, the hoity and toity locked down prime real estate within a 2 mile radius of every Wegmans. Normally ignored, arthritic elders suddenly spewed forth cautionary tales of weather-related joint pain. De-icing windshield wiper fluid shot to 10 bucks a gallon and domesticated animals lurked sneakily near exits.

Then, it came. SIGNIFICANT snow accumulations...possible. The whispers began. "Have you pre-salted?"

Whatever nature does in the course of human events in Central PA this weekend, Harrisburg-er-ian-ites are ready. Even if it doesn't come. Especially if it doesn't come.

(with special thanks to Dr. GreatScott formerly known as S. Matthews)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Glass is Half Full But It Doesn't Touch Your Lips by Madama Sebastian

Few people are born with cosmopolitan DNA. It has been documented (Wikipedia has a nice little piece on crossing cultures) that 60% of those who jump the fence in search of greener grass return to the land of their birth after realizing they prefer the hues and textures of the grass they left. It should be noted that in the city of 6 million people in Chennai, there's very little grass to even do culture comparison shopping. This is not my category as is evidenced by the fact that I'm still here.

What happens to the remaining 40% who choose life in a new country? According to Wikipedia, 10% choose cultural immersion. They adopt the habits, history and traditions of their new home. Walking the walk..or in this case, wearing the sari or churidar, eating with fingers sans forks, cooking on a 2-burner gas stove with a vegetarian bent, celebrating a multitude of misunderstood holidays, and learning at least the rudiments of a language that refuses to be properly pronounced in a foreign mouth. In the beginning, I admit I tried cultural overload in an erroneous effort to embrace change, the fascination of which wears off in about a year's time.

The last 30% of culture crossers, of which I am one, give a great deal of thought to the reasons the 60% left and at least initially attempt the full cultural dip taken by the other 10%. For me, deciding to stay in a new environment involved letting the observations sink in and allowing sufficient time to pass to absorb it all. At some point for me, the choice I made was to acknowledge but not always participate in the newer culture's ways.

I have never worn a sari. There is some trepidation about it unraveling in a public place that has kept me firmly in familiar clothes territory. I eat with a fork when I can and don't when the occasion calls for it. I do not hold a communal water bottle several inches above my open lips in order to drink because I like the certainty that the water will actually end up in my mouth. I do not celebrate holidays, new or old, in the manner in which most folks do but I am very grateful for the day off from work, a celebration of rest if you will. My advice: When in Rome...check out the Romans, respect what they do and how they do it but live your life as comfortably as you will in full knowledge of being a permanent stranger.

Crossing into a new culture is not a letting go of what you once were. Given time and thought, it is an evolution that preserves and then enhances the best of you. It is about accepting the fact that the stranger in you may forever be strange in the eyes of your new culture and being flexible enough to just get on with it anyway.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

An American Living in India by Madama Sebastian

This is my experience and I don't expect to speak for all Western people nor do I view all Eastern people the same way. Now that that is out of the way, let me tell you a little of what I have and haven't learned.

Three years ago I arrived in India on the brink of marriage to my Keralite husband with a head full of National Geographic and Discovery Channel images of India. When I got off the plane in the middle of a January Chennai night, I was wearing a jacket. After all, it was official winter in Chennai and, thinking winter actually meant winter even in India, I came prepared. I was not even through the immigration line before the jacket was dismissed. It was the beginning of an endless list of miscalculations and misinterpretations that were not born in stupidity or ignorance, but in the blind perceptions of a person too heavily dependent on the third party media. In other words, I bought what the commercials sold me.

Here's the PR spin. India is spiritual. True--it is. Everybody's Hindu. Not true. Between 80 and 85% of Indians living in India are Hindu, which by the way, is much more of a choice of lifestyle than an actual religion. The remaining 15 to 20% of Indians have a mixture of beliefs--Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Zorastrians, agnostics. Not so unlike America in the way the numbers play out to a dominant belief.

In America we have 2 major political parties. In India, your brother could start a political party and it could be in power anytime soon. There are as many political parties and their representative party flags as you can imagine. The tug of war at the top can be all consuming to some Indians. Not so different from America where politics can be impolite as dinner conversation but simmering and hot just beneath the tip of most tongues. And so together, and apart, we believe strongly.

What's the same from West to East? Plenty. What's different? Plenty. Next time, we'll get into it a little more intimately.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Awww..I just felt like it by Madama Sebastian

Maybe I just wanted to type in Verdana font in size 3...or maybe it’s a little spring fever..nevertheless..

Hi to everybody from India..

It’s been a wild year of country hoppin’ and immigration visits but it’s all coming together now. Getting all nice and legal, working, getting a new home in Chennai (rented, but fabulous, darling) and just getting on with the business and joys of living.

Been very tired of the old hurry up and wait routine and now the new kid penance is nearly over. I still can’t speak more than 10 words of any Indian language and the ones I do speak are mixed among Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi. Blame those Bolly and Kollywood movies! Not all of my vocabulary are swear words, either! although I know a few and I usually use them when the dogs misbehave, which is often.

For all the sun in Chennai, I am no tanner...but I am more wise. There’s a part of you that fights change hard when you’re subjected to a big dose of it and then, somewhere along the line, you decide to make peace within and go more with the current rather than against it.

It’s in my American nature or maybe just my own nature to be strongly assertive, occasionally that stereotypical American aggressiveness sneaks in too..and that doesn’t fly here. I’ve learned to wait longer for nearly everything because I have to wait longer, not because I’m calmly accepting the waiting. That’s just the way it is (Cronkite-ism) and it’s just not going to change for me. There are stil occasions when I ask "...and WHY NOT?"

There are days when I miss what I once knew but there are never days when I’d turn around. I knew this would be hard to do--pick a level..it’s hard on all of them--and the knowing has made it bearable. Now I can say I’ve been here long enough to get it..but if I didn’t have my Sunshine, it never could have been so wonderful. I’m not just puffing up for my good husband...he really is beyond patient and trust me, with me he needs to be.

This is what I wanted. It was the right choice. It’s where I belong and it’s who I want to belong with, the one who makes the ride exciting, interesting, unpredictable and maddening. What would life be without those adjectives!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Culture Shock 101 by Madama Sebastian

Yegg: What I would eat with bacon if I could find some in Chennai.

"I will kindly revert to you" Revert, Schmeevert..just get back to me.

"Tolet": What I thought were a lot of misspelled signs for public bathrooms were really missing-a-space words that meant "to rent"..as in "this building is to let." English that's older than me.

"Does it pain you?"...almost a better way of asking if something hurts.

Nodding "no" with head figure-eighting side to side actually...means "yes" or "I agree with what you are saying. In this situation I usually end up nodding right along with the person who is agreeing with me. Like yawning or throwing up, it's contagious.

Questions asked and assumptions made at my Indian job interviews and in some casual conversations:

"How old are you? How old is your husband? Where does he work? When's his birthday? Do you have children? When are you having children? How much money did you pay for your house? your car? How much is your salary? When are you moving to the US?" (Didn't I just get here?)

In India, what Americans call a resume...rez-uh-may..is a CV or curriculae vitae. Thanks for adding Latin to the many languages I now I have to know just to get by. When you do hear the word resume in India used in reference to work, it is pronounced like the American word resume which means to pick up where you left off.

"I am speaking English. Why don't you understand me?"...

My response: ...because it's not the English I know...the one that adds an idiom a day and drops two others in the same day. Indian English is highly influenced by the formal, old style British English. I am not Shakespeare. The communication twain shall meet but let's not make it a head on collision!

A lift is an elevator in India, but something a short man slips inside his shoe to make him taller in America...and even that's an old word.

The Indian term "ear bud" ...just sounds like someone forgot to clean them. We call them Q-tips in the US...ya know, like Kleenex tissues. The brand name becomes so popular that it ends up being....Ah, forget it.

Tata...from salt to cars, it's the big name of nearly everything in India, a family dynasty. I love the word, but as an American, for all the wrong reasons (aka bodacious tatas) It just sounds like something I used to whisper to my friends in 6th grade and giggle....tata...hee, hee, hee....

Fairness cream. How many years of baby oil with iodine, Coppertone, and bronzers have I invested developing this sorry excuse for a tan? I come here and bingo! Tan is out...fair is in. SO "in" that in the Indian personal ads (for matrimony) a prospective bride will list her skin tone almost before her educational credentials. Pale magna cum laude.

Communal water pitchers. I guess the reason is for sanitary purposes but in India, you will likely have one pitcher of water and one glass for an entire table of people. Folks take turns filling the glass and then holding it half a foot away from their mouths, streaming the water artfully south. I have yet to see one Dixie Cup but I also carry my own...because, let's face it, otherwise I would most likely drown.

Hair color. Take your pick. As long as it's brown, you'll get just what you need.

Selfless....No by Madama Sebastian

The Sebastians recently celebrated some important landmarks including 2 year anniversaries...my time in India and our marriage. In the scheme known as life, 2 years is barely a blink for most people, but for me (Baba) the blink was an eye opener. When you cut to the chase, we are a content pair.
We have no fabulous tales to share unless you count being happy as fabulous. These days, in our shaky world, I think happiness alone is a tremendous achievement. There was a time when happiness had to equal a tangible and it's a relief to drop the concept.
For those of you who know me well and have not been a physical part of my life these last few years, I appreciate all the emails. They connect me to those I love on the other side of the world from the one I live in and, without those notes, my happiness would be half.
Can life be bliss? It's relative. What do you recognize as bliss? A cool breeze on a hot day? Or a new gadget? When I really learned to quit living by other people's rules, my life became easier to live. I don't hurt others to do this and that should be enough.
The invisible societal requirement to please others without acknowledging your own needs (double or triple that for the female gender) is out and out crap. Pardon me for not being an emotional martyr so that someday my tombstone will read like a list of adjectives from a Girl Scout manual. She was "devoted, selfless, caring, charitable, blah, blah."
Those who genuinely have these qualities don't care what their tombstones read. Those who put positive qualities on like slick, shiny clothes are emotional whores whose pimp is ego. Ever see someone hold a door open for someone else and just scan the room with his eyes for the thanks he expects? Bingo. Human to human kindness may include thanks but it doesn't require an audience.
This is not a lesson taught. It is a lesson learned. The day I quit learning, I give full permission to death to claim my sorry ass and spirit me away to the great unknown. When you give yourself permission to learn at every age, you extend, you stretch, you grow, you live. You get one great wave of life, baby.........how you gonna ride it?