Jul 26, 2012

Imperfect recall: what if?

Memories are unreliable chroniclers of facts. Sometimes bold, at other times, hazy but almost always shape-shifting, shimmery little mirages thrown up by your mind to appease, humor, nurture or mislead. Are the hazy ones hazy because they are incomplete ? The bold ones trying too hard to convince you? Which ones are true and which ones your own fanciful creations? What do you believe if even Belief can be trickery?

I read somewhere about how tricky the process of Recall is and find it quite plausible that often a small portion of our vividest memories are based on retrieved facts. The rest are intelligent cerebral interpolations that seeks to fill in the empty spaces and impart the right flavor. Poetic license of the Soul, if you will.

For instance, I'm know for sure that years ago, my brother really did build a small paper fire in our bedroom in Nairobi. To cook rice in a metal Smarties tube behind the bed. I am less sure however that the rice turned out as creamy, fluffy and yummy as I remember it. It's much more likely that my mom busted our covert ops at the first whiff of smoke and charred tin. My brother was 8, I was 3 and I am told that nothing good had ever come of complete silence from us for over 10 minutes in those days. My harried and over-worked young mother was in a perpetual state of alertness as a result. She had been primed, amongst other adventures, by returning to the kitchen one day, after hours of washing clothes in the bathtub, to find my brother lovingly lining up jam jars on the window sill. They were teeming with tadpoles and young frogs he'd 'rescued' from the school drains. She also found me about to start on a baby bottle full of assorted pond life. My brother's scheme to get me off the bottle was a brilliant, if unacknowledged, success as a few short screams later (not all of them came from me) I was permanently cured of the bottle habit. Anyway. Point is, she'd developed eyes in the back of her head and a 6th, 7th and 8th sense for what we were up to at any given time.

I'm not surprised though that I remember the taste of that forbidden snack (that never was) so well. We probably came way from the episode with bottoms slightly smarting and sinister promises of our father's fury (ineffective...he was a lamb) when he returned later in the evening. The thrill and excitement of  our bold adventure could not possibly end on such a mundane, forgettable note in the cerebral annals of my personal history. And so history got quietly revised when I first consciously remembered our 'good old days' and the episode of the Smartie tube. My brain filled in gaps and awarded the anticlimactic, unmemorable moments in my memory more fitting notes of joy.

So how do you trust your memories, ever? Not so worrisome with the joyful ones: hyperbole is not a bad thing if it stays true to spirit. But how about the dark nasties that everyone harbors in the inner recesses of their hearts?

What if you were to discover one day that the resentment that you feel towards someone has been conflated by your mind? That the anger towards them has been swollen by a hardworking brain filling in gaps with tones befitting your hurt feelings? Maybe their trespass was real but contextually much smaller than it's long residence in your memory has made it.

What if every hurt inside you is only fractionally real?
What if With just one stroke of acceptance, you can banish the majority of your hurts?

What if?

Oyon-isms:
5.5 years old.
To his Uncle Mark as he walked through the door, "Hi Uncle Mark. I just had a tantrum. I cried, yelled and whined for things that were not right. It's called a tantrum and it's not good .Want to see my new 'Lion King' book?"

Jul 20, 2012

Bluffers two-step

“I have such doubts!” was the final line in John Shanley's Pulitzer winning play ‘Doubt’. In the movie adaptation, Meryl Streep’s entire wimple clad being shook with remorse as this confession exploded out of her. If only everyone could find such clear expression and catharsis (and a multi $$ movie deal).

Lets admit it: a halfway sensible person second-guesses themselves at least once every day and five times on a Sunday. That's about right when we have sense enough to know that there is so much that we don’t know. Yet the unwritten coda of social interaction and the prevalent culture of confidence requires that we stay firm in our pronouncements even when we suspect they are half-baked at best and plain wrong at worst. And correctly so, I think. If you’re like me, admitting that there are so many alternate possibilities can paralyze you into indecision. Better to stick with your decision, bluff it out and hope that your self confidence and the faith you inspire fools your audience. I think of it as the ‘Bluffers two-step’ where you step outside your bounds of certainty, make defiant eye-contact with the rest of the world, then take the second step forward into your newly created certainly. This is how illusions are created and sold and entire populations dance along to tunes that they know to be off beat. As long as you’re not trying to pull off something ridiculously wrong, it becomes self-fulfilling: off-beat becomes the new beat and if we all dance to it, the world keeps spinning without anyone flying off it.

There are few better staging grounds for this kind of self-fulfilling bravado than parenting a young child. I'll admit that upper management 'brain storming sessions' are also pretty potent.
Case in point, last night I unwisely decided to teach my 5.5 year old double digit addition at 7:30 pm (AKA bedtime), at the fag end of a long and blisteringly hot day at camp. Since he’s watching his favorite movie (‘The Lion King’ these days) in 11 minute sections every night, “what better way to teach addition?” I thought. Especially as he’s been pleading to learn Kumon math (I’ve NO idea why). When he lost focus for the 8th time in the space of 2 minutes I pulled out my most severe threat - "Do I need to pull your ear?”.

The Ear Pull requires a quick ‘aside’.
Oyon had a short stint with Kumon reading in the recent past (topic for another post) that involved doing nightly homework worth about 30-40 minutes. That is a LONG time to sit still and focus after a long day of 'behaving' at daycare. It doesn't help that for most of his waking hours he is busy roaming inside his significantly active imagination, making up stories, enacting dramas and otherwise being a 5 year old. So in a chapter of inglorious parenting, I had resorted to the 'Ear Pull' as a way to get his wandering mind (and eyes and brain and limbs) to attend to the task on hand so that everyone could get on with their lives. It was a gentle tug, tested on myself,  that induced nothing more than mild and momentary discomfort that redirects his attention. I abandoned it as a regular tool after observing that every day he was acting out right around the 10 minute mark and realizing that 10 minutes was probably his max focus ability at this point. The ear pulling was hurting his feelings, giving me terrible guilt and incidentally, doing absolutely nothing for his focus. I closed that shameful chapter on the high note of restricting homework to 5 pages (but only after my husband pointed that out as the obvious solution). I also offered rewards/bribes for focusing well (that goes into a whole other chapter on Shameful Parenting. Surely you didn’t think there was just one of those?). But I still reserved the ‘Ear Pull’ in my toolbox of 'Measures of the Last Resort'. It nestled snugly in between ‘No TV tomorrow’ and ‘No car or plane toys for 2 days’.

Short on energy and patience as I was last night, out it came at the aforementioned ill-judged moment. As expected, he didn’t pay heed to a duly issued warning and I implemented said Ear Pull. The broken hearted sobbing that then ensued wreaked such havoc on me that I’d have given Streep a run for her money in the ‘doubt’ department. He did momentarily lose some sympathy by angrily shouting ‘I’m going to tell on you to Baba!’ but regained (and doubled it) by following up with a disbelieving ‘That hurt! YOU hurt me!’. Oh my goodness. No one should be the cause of such a look of disbelief and disappointment in their child's eyes!
But how to work my way out of this one now? A complete recant (that my heart wanted) would undermine all future authority. Staying the course (that my mind wanted) risked eroding a little boy’s faith in his mamma.

So of course, I executed the Bluffers Two-step. I asked 'Did I give you warnings? Did I say that if you didn’t focus I’d have to do an Ear Pull?'
One set of leaking eyes, trembling mouth, tear tracked grimy cheeks and curly head nodded an affirmative to both.
First step forward taken: I’d announced that I was right in my choice.
Then I cupped his face in my hands, made nose-to nose contact and said softly “I’m very sorry I hurt you. I love you even when you’re naughty.”
The second step of the dance was complete. The self-fulfilling part came through next as instantly mollified by my apology, he dashed away his tears to say: “I’m sorry too Mamma. I’m going to listen next time. And d’you know what? Now I won’t tell on you. I’ll only tell Baba that you’re the bestest Mamma in the world

That I  did not deserve to live, was the thought of that moment.
As putridly sappy as his Hallmark card words sounds, it isn't meant as a hearts and roses moment. I neither feel absolved by his undeserved kudos nor believe for a second he really learnt anything from this (except hopefully that no one is above a good apology). This is how unflinching a child's faith in his parents are: faith that they will always love him, protect him, be fair to him. How easily this can be shattered and regained is scary. And the power of apology...man! An apology will get him to back down and fess up and renew faith. Not to mention, it lets Mamma atone for a misjudged move while sticking to her stance.

I gave him an extra guilt induced 5 mins of the movie, though he doesn’t know it (and won’t until he cracks double-digit addition!). And in case my husband’s reading this, “We’re out of Glen Fidditch: I drank the last of it in a toast to the Bluffers Two-step”.

Jul 19, 2012

The Law of Entropy

"There's nothing to watch on TV, even when you're watching something on TV" I thought wearily to myself as I clicked through the quadrillion channels we promise ourselves we'll cancel every month. I surfed over to 'NOVA' on PBS, an old favorite from grad school days when FREINDS seemed too puerile and Seinfeld too snarky and cynical for my youthful optimism (I have since learnt to appreciate both shows). At 11 pm on a weekday, after a work day, single parenting (hubby's out of town) and fighting a sinus infection to boot, an old favorite certainly presented the path of least resistance.

 They were discussing the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the concept of 'entropy'. One of the concepts behind entropy is that 'nature tends from order to disorder' and they carefully explained that 'disorder' is actually a 'measure of multiplicity' (from http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/therm/entrop.html#e3). So 'If a given state can be accomplished in many more ways, then it is more probable than one which can be accomplished in only a few ways.' To me this means that things will probably turn out the way you think but not how. So craft all the plans that you want but prepare to watch as they unravel and eventually sort themselves out.

The half-asleep 10 minutes I watched simmered overnight and this morning brought into focus some nebulous thoughts I’ve been happening about how we fulfill ourselves in the unlikeliest ways. For instance, I've always been an empathetic person and thus more prone to feeling sad about the state of the world than is healthy. I’d ago long decided that I'd counter my sadness by becoming a ‘better person' and that self-awareness, planning and hard work is the ticket. Then Life happened and the abovementioned qualities rustled up only overwork, fussiness and frustration. I felt I had insufficient time for volunteerism beyond the few token annual efforts (like sporadically walking dogs at the local shelter, doing park clean-ups, volunteer GIS for disaster relief, writing checks for disasters etc). It was more important right then to focus on professional landmarks, working on the new house and bonding with the husband over shared passions.

Then came our son. Unlike many of my friends, I find that I've done more for others AFTER I became a harassed, overworked mom than before. The way I figure it, I actually feel more gratitude for my life after having been given my son and naturally work harder at giving back. Wanting to model goodness for my son provides me more opportunities to do so. I've invested some critical time into my profession at the key time so now have little more space to give it as well. I still don’t do a fraction of what I'd like to do, but it's more than before. So per the laws of entropy, becoming a 'better person' happened anyway, in spite of me, because there were so many ways for it to happen. I know this is not a truly scientific analogy and I'm not interested in any geeky, scientific critiques of my logic -  but wow. Go figure.

Two days ago my friends, the Subs, became legal parents to LilV. This means that a court declared that Asub was 'forever mother' to the 4 year old perched on her hip and that VBsub, whose hand he was tightly clutching, was his 'forever father'. In the photograph of their bigmoment, there were grins on the Subs' faces as they became a family in every sense. Even though we came to our family via different route, the first family pic they shared from Bangalore when they met their son for the first time, seemed familiar. I remember the first time Shouvik gave me and Oyon a joint hug, collapsing 3 people into one entity without any words. I saw the same thing in their first family picture too and the Law of Entropy called out to me again.

We both got at our but goals in such different ways:
1.  Their parturition was entirely logistical: instead of navigating a maze of hospital corridors and insurance/hospital paperwork, they dealt with bureaucracies and legal systems in two countries. Talk about a tough delivery.
2. Their gestation was over 2 years, not my 36.4 weeks.
3. Unlike mine, their birth plan skipped lightly over c-sections (last resort) and tubal ligation (yes, please if c-section occurs) and landed on precisely how to deal with the foster family to ease the trauma of parting a 3 year old from a loving albeit temporary home.
4. They decorated a nursery and dreamt their share of 'this time next year we'll be three' dreams but unlike me, waited an additional year without bitterness to see it come true.

And here we are now. All parents, all struggling with our roles, delighting in our children, finding happiness where we least expected it as well as where we looked for it and constantly, constantly evolving as we move from order to the disorder that it takes to achieve true equilibrium.

So the next time you make a promise to yourself about how you want to react, what you expect from your hard work and then watch it go down in flames, just remember that it’s not just you….the whole universe is unraveling.

But it will work out in the end all the same.