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 Anne’s winter war face had been replaced by a high, healthy pink—her glowing reward for besting winter’s worst in the name of a fresh, clean smell.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.