Monday, April 26, 2010

Alien Nation

Just as Arizona passes a law that permits its law enforcement officials to stop any likely looking suspect and demand "Your papers, please", we have this strange possibility posited by Stephen Hawking, of all people, regarding how Aliens from other planets may regard humans on Earth- No more than ants to be crushed under feet, if human history and the treatment of conquered peoples is any indication.
S recently made a stop-motion animation cartoon which portrays a couple of robotic 'aliens' who approach a manned barricade, which they proceed to barrel through with ease, despite the increasing sophistication of the arms used to guard it. At the end, one of the aliens keels over, and the other scoots away in a hurry. All this, at the sight of a sign demanding "Immigration: Passports please". This was from a few weeks ago, before the Arizona law was passed in the legislature.
I knew it, S is psychic!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Conversations with an Auto Mechanic

"Is that a picture of your grandson?", I asked, trying to make small talk as I waited for the mechanic to finish printing out my bill for the car inspection. He gave me a strange look. "That's my son."
Oops. Time to recalibrate. "Looks very cute and quite a handful. How old is he?", I attempted to save my lame guessing from further glares. "Three. He's quite a ham in front of the camera."
 This does it, I guess. I shouldn't remind a guy that he looks older than his years. Who knows whether he will even give me the time of the day the next time I call for an appointment.


My car has been making strange vrooming sounds for a couple of days now. Driving 60 miles daily, I have no choice but to get it looked at sooner rather than later. I go online, find the mechanic has an online appointment making form. Alleluia! I don't have to try catching him on the phone. I can schedule it online.

I show up there the next morning at the appointed time. He had just finished printing out the fax informing him of my appointment.
"This your appointment?" he asked, waving the sheet.
"Yes", and I launched into an explanation of the problem I was having. "How's your kid now? Almost ready for kindergarten yet?", I point to the photos behind him.
His face lights up. He starts off on a long tale of how his son will start kindergarten next year and is looking forward to a friend's birthday, except for the fact that he can't attend, since he is going to Philly with his mom. "I don't care that much for my sis-in-law", he guffaws." You know how these things are. I go there once in 2 years."
"Where do you work?"
On hearing that I work for a medical device company, he launches into an expansive description of his and his friend's medical issues. I probably know more about his health than is now polite to discuss, HIPAA laws prevent me from divulging that.
(Note: I am a google-doctor and do not possess any medical degree.)
"Now let's check the problem in your car. Do you want to ride along?" He is quite affable as he starts up the car, listens attentively to the vroom and brings it back to the garage. "We'll put it up on the lift and check. Sounds like an exhaust leak somewhere."
I check my watch surreptitiously. Magically, despite the leisurely pace of conversation, only half an hour has elapsed since I reached the place.
 He says he'll order the parts and I'm to bring in the car to have it fixed the next morning, since he is aware I must be needing to get to work. He waves me off cheerfully.


The next morning, I take the car in and plunk myself on the old leather sofa in his dark little office room. He is buried behind the huge desk and counter, cloistered with a gentleman in a cap. Much muttering over taxes and my ears perk up when he mentions the township where I live. Could he live there too? I revert to my book and mp3 player. The tax guy leaves after getting the required signatures. About half an hour later, the assistant mechanic drops my keys back at the desk. The repair is done. It's time for me to pay and leave. I stand up at the counter and then the inquisition starts.
"What do you think of all this big government and the way they use our tax money? Squandering it away on extensions of unemployment and such. It makes me sick to think how hard I work, and some just take it easy and get unemployment instead of good paying job."
I hedge, answering that while people taking unemployment just as the easy way out, there are many other good things our taxes pay for, such as schools, roads, police forces, etc. The conversation shifts to schools, and as I guessed, he does live in the same township as me. The earlier school district he lived in has now become filled with all sorts of 'riff raff', as he calls them. I take a chance, pointing out that 'riff raff' are people too, just poorer. "Takes all kinds to make a world."
And it proceeds into friendly inquiries about where I come from, naming conventions in India, why it is that all the best IT people are from India. I point out that it's just the pattern of immigration being encouraged in the current era, just as East Europeans and Italians came in droves to work in the newly industrialized US in the late 19th century and early 20th century. "Greeks are very good painters", he muses over my assertion.
"That's what they may have started off as. But after a generation or two and decent college educations, they'll be the doctors and engineers and business owners of tomorrow."
I glance at my watch. I have precisely half an hour in which to reach work in time for a meeting. "I must be going now, have a meeting." He prints out my bill with alacrity, I don't glance at the amount as I sign. "$53", he announces as he runs the credit card through. I'm surprised. I had figured with parts and stuff that the bill would have run to around $80. But I have no time to ask about that.
I suppose now that conversations with a mechanic do count for quite a bit of goodwill, despite my earlier doubts about how he might take some of my opinions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Anne Frank Uncensored

I had no idea. The version of Anne Frank's diary that I had read many years ago was but 60% of her original diary. The remaining 30% had been excised by her father Otto Frank before its original publication in the 1950's. I had read a reprint of that edition from the 1980's.
A few days ago, my children and I sat down to watch a darker Anne Frank than I remembered from the book, no longer quite as saccharine, and definitely much more in conflict with her mother than I had ever thought.
M tentatively suggested at the end, "Can I read this when I'm older?" to which I readily agreed. Maybe, when she is around 13.
S was silent on whether he would like to read the book. But then he's read more of the horrors of the Holocaust from Elie Wiesel's "Night". The diary of Anne Frank pales in comparison as far as chronicling those, her view is limited to the claustrophobic confines of the Secret Annexe where she lived with her family during the two long years before discovery and the final terrible months in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
It was only today that I realized that an 'uncensored' version of the diary had been published in 1997. This contains Anne's unflattering adolescent assessments of her mother and investigations of her own sexuality that Otto Frank had chosen to keep out of the earlier edition. He died in 1980, and the successors to his estate are evidently less circumspect about full disclosure.
I don't know how those who might have seen the earlier edition of the book as too saintly and cloying have reacted to the newer edition. Does it take some of the shine off their vision of Anne? Perhaps it does.
To me, it tells us that human frailties transcend the urge to idealize, and ultimately burnish rather than tarnish the humanity of Anne Frank's story and diary.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Too much of a good thing

There is such a thing as too much chocolate.

We just got back from a two day trip to Hershey, PA,  the 'Sweetest Place on Earth'.
I've always had an affinity for chocolate, lovingly lingering on those tiny bars of Cadbury's milk chocolate that were a rare treat in childhood. We had to study how Theobroma Cacao was cultivated and cocoa harvested and processed in the Ivory Coast and Ghana for a whole unit in our 10th grade geography class. I still remember marvelling over the size of the pods in the photos. No words in the textbook of the Mayans or Aztecs, a missing part of the story deftly dismissed in a single line about South American origins of the tree.
After several years in the U.S., I've been able to indulge at will in that sweet pastime of buying and eating Hershey's bars or Kisses when the mood strikes, or when the Halloween candy is in, or the Easter sales and Christmas sales are round the corner.
This year, we actually paid a visit to that shrine to Chocolate: Hershey, Pennsylvania. It was a model town back in the 19th century, the brainchild of Milton S. Hershey, built around the chocolate factory. Sort of like Willie Wonka, but with human workers instead of Oompa-Loompas. And of course, human workers need much more than just cacao beans to stay alive. So they were recipients of the well-planned munificence of Milton Hershey, who left much of his fortune to establishing charitable trusts that ensured the well-being of future generations of Hersheyites. The town and the charity school he founded bear his imprimatur, to this day.
The air there smells of chocolate, the streetlights are shaped like Hershey's Kisses, the main buildings on the main avenue are museums to Hershey's life and times. The crowds come pouring in, every spring, as the theme park with its roller coasters and rides opens, and the Disneyesque entertainments of the Chocolate World keep the tourists entertained, with everything from '3-D' shows to 'Chocolate tasting tours' to simulated 'Factory Tours'. The real business of Hershey's goes on quietly, away from the tourist paradise, a large antiseptic factory in white and blue, tucked away on the far end of the main avenue as it peters out into the countryside.
It's a place well worth visiting, and will work wonders for those who are in the mode to either indulge or rid themselves of an addiction to chocolate.