Sunday, December 18, 2016

Budding romances

New addresses are like budding romances. There is the thrill and excitement of knowing a new city, its many hidden gems and secret nooks. Every day is a surprise, an exploration, a new page of a diary, a brand new chapter of a book. The thrill of discovering a restaurant serving your favorite cuisine. Or a cozy little coffee shop inside a quaint mall with your favorite corner, a little obscure, to sit and read in anonymity. A lesser known road lined with colorful trees. New sights of the changing seasons. Of streets never walked before, and houses never seen before. New smells and things that feel different under the skin. Who knows where this road leads to, and what stories lay in the nooks and corners of these buildings? The sun is the same, but the sunshine seems different, falling on unknown objects and making them glow like new. Like a snow-capped mountain or lavender field that gets you all excited while blasé drivers zoom past without stopping. As I walk back home every day, taking a different road every time, every new house excites me. I see little Christmas lights glowing inside, newly decorated trees, and wonder who lives here, what their stories are. Relationships are the same. They come with the excitement of the unknown, the smell of a new book, the newness of a spring flower. The world is out there for you, waiting to get explored, and discovered. Even the sparkle in the eyes thrills you, because it is new for you. That is how this city feels like right now.

With time, some romances fade, and others turn into love. When the dust of the newness has settled, it leaves behind the comfort of predictability. Knowing all the roads and where they lead to, where they start and where they end. Knowing every little restaurant and every little garden. Knowing exactly where to take the guests. And what roads to avoid during game day. Like living with the same person for 20, 50 years, and waking with them every morning, holding hands and feeling the same love every single day as you take a walk. Romance changes to love, and the excitement of the unknown to the comfort of the known. Because what you created in between is shared history, shared memories. Memories that are unique, like carrying a piece of their DNA in your heart. The city's. The person's. Calling someone and already knowing how they say, "Hello?" on the phone. Or respond when you call out their name in a crowd. On nights that I am working late and all is quiet outside, I can hear the horn of the train with routine predictability. I derive a strange sense of comfort from that sound, just knowing where it is coming from and that it happens every day, although I am sitting miles away from the train and cannot see it.

Because places are not much different from people. You live in them, you live with them. You grow with them, and they grow on you. Familiarity sometimes breeds contempt, and romance dissipates, love evaporates. Until you see things from someone else's eyes, from a new perspective, and perhaps remember what it felt like all those years ago. Because we are creatures of habit, and new places mold us into new habits. Like, I drop by the grocery store every day from work, even if I do not need anything. Because the aisles feel familiar, the people feel familiar. That is the comfort of familiarity. Then sometimes, I take a different bus home, and am surprised by the newness all over again. And thus continues my romance with this city, turning a little bit into love with every passing day.


Monday, December 05, 2016

Teething Troubles

The most horrific thing happened to me this Halloween. While chewing on a piece of Halloween candy flicked from the office kitchen, I bit on a piece of something rock solid. In a split second, I instinctively knew what it was. I was engulfed with a sinking, panicked feeling in my stomach. I'd be less freaked out had I spotted someone staring back at me in the bathroom mirror. I had bitten on a porcelain cap that was guarding one of my upper molars. I had gotten it done in Kolkata last year, amid lying in a pool of blood and tears during a root canal surgery. What is even more horrifying is that I had woken up that same morning in cold sweat after a nightmare where I saw some of my teeth falling off. I could not believe that I was living my nightmare happening for real within a few hours.

I immediately smelled dental cement. Shit! This was not good. I could have swallowed it by mistake and then, they would have to trace my plumbing system to get it out. Worse, I could have choked on it and died in my thirties, even before attaining tenure. Carefully, I spat out the tooth cap, my tongue feeling very raw on the exposed remains of the tooth. I wanted to keel over and throw up.

Last year, I had spent an arm and a leg and a sizable portion of my kidney to get a root canal done from this dentist who claimed that the sophisticated machinery he used meant one would feel no pain. Far from it, I had wept and whimpered, periodically spitting salty mouth wash and coagulated blood. His hands had felt like boxers pummeling fists inside my mouth. I had been sore for days. Even with all this, he had not done a foolproof job. Danger bells had started ringing in my head when I overheard him take a call and brag to someone about an upcoming Dubai trip and plans for buying the new iPhone. I instinctively knew whose wallet would be riddled to pay for it. I have always had a hate-hate relationship with dentists since my milk teeth days.

In a fit of panic, I made a terrible mistake. I somehow managed to put back the cap in its position. I instantly knew it was a mistake because now, I could not eat without fearing that I might swallow it once again. At night, I was afraid to fall sleep lest I swallow it and choke and die in my sleep (I slept on my stomach that night and duct taped my jaw). The next morning, I chewed on another piece of Halloween candy and there, the cap was out again. I was so relieved.

I messaged the Indian dentist on Whatsapp. Rather than sounding apologetic, he admonished me, sounding defensive and telling me how he had taken fresh impressions and gotten me a second cap (yes, this was the second cap that came out, he did such a good job). I wasn't expecting him to miraculously cure me on Whatsapp, but I was not expecting rudeness either. He alluded that the architecture of my teeth must be faulty (blaming the victim, as always). He asked me to find a dentist in the US and ask them to glue it back. As if I did not know that already. I hope that the Dubai trip was worth it. Someday, when dentists in India start getting sued for malpractice, I'll be the one laughing. Perhaps a toothless, gummy laughter by that age, but I'd definitely be having my last laugh.

It's been a nightmare since then. The next few days found me dentist-shopping, and the wide array of options confused me. Some said I need an endodontist, some said an orthodontist, and some, just a dentist. I have never seen a dentist in the US or Germany before (always depended on my Kolkata trips to get my vision and dental issues fixed), don't know how the insurance works here, and the thought of lying in another dentist's room scared the hell out of me. I am suddenly way more troubled at the thought of getting older. I am suddenly repentant for asking grandma more questions and making her talk more on purpose every night after she removed her dentures (and giggling at how funny she sounded). I feel sorry for having thrown grandpa's dentures on the garage roof at the age of five, just for fun. I can sense karma catching up with me big time. Will I ever be able to chew on a mutton bone from my biryani in peace? My Korean dentist friend once told me that most of the patients who visit her do so to fix their dentures since they sometimes come out while kissing with force (why people would be kissing with dentures on is a different story, but who am I to judge anyway?). Would I ever be able to do that without fearing disastrous consequences? Would I be able to fix my tooth without filing for bankruptcy? Would I ever be able to chew on a piece of bone without worrying? Or smile without looking funny? Would I be able to teach three-hour long classes from the next semester without bellowing like a broken harmonium? Or feel less mental about my dental problems? Stay tuned if you have nothing better to do in life and want to know. And if you have secretly suffered from dental problems all your life like I have, let's bond over virtual coffee and share those stories.


Thursday, December 01, 2016

A car(e)free life

Priorities change. Our fears change. We change.

My greatest stress about moving back to the US involved getting a new driver license. When you have been gone from the country for 2 years, you are out of the system. Everything needs to be done afresh, and involves liberal amounts of paperwork and running around.

Multiple Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices in the area told me that I would have to start afresh- clear the knowledge test as well as the driving test. Although I drove quite a bit for 5 years, more than the average person does, knowledge test involved studying, and often memorizing facts that were not directly relevant (e.g., remembering permissible blood alcohol levels for someone who doesn't drink). I was lazy and did not have the mindset to study.

And then, the actual driving test- a chicken and egg problem. You cannot rent a car without a driver license, and if you don't rent a car, you cannot take the driving test. I do not know anyone outside work here, and when I was invited to attend a Sunday bhajan followed by a vegetarian potluck, I was convinced that I am perhaps better off not knowing anyone outside work. Now how would I get a car?

Burdened by these (first) worldly problems, I decided to at least get a state ID first (needs to be done within the first 30 days). I show up with all my documents. The first person at the counter confirms that this will be a state ID and not a driver license. I need to take the driving test in some other location that needs prior appointment. So I wait patiently until my name is called and I walk up to the counter to get a state ID.

"Your driver license expired in 2014. I see that you did not renew it."

A gut feeling inside told me to keep mum and nod, without explaining that I was gone from the country.

"If you pay a fine of such amount, we can renew your license," I could not believe my ears.

Quickly, I paid the fine, furtively looking around and making sure that no one comes from behind and gets me in trouble. With a racing heart, I quickly took the vision test, pledged to donate my organs when I died, smiled for a horrible ID picture, paid all the dues, gave copious amounts of thank yous and sorrys for not renewing on time, and ran out of the DMV office once they issued me a temporary driver license. I did not even stop to use the restroom, lest they change their mind and take away my new license.

Twenty six months into not driving, I got a driver license. Just like that. Without a knowledge test or driving test. Two weeks later, the actual driving license was in my mailbox.

That was part one of the story. Part two is, around the same time, I had an epiphany (with old age, I have many these days) that I did not want to own a car anymore. Not for the time being at least. Yes, this is coming from a person who drove 8,000 miles solo in one month before leaving the US, and suffered from strong separation anxiety when she had to sell her car. I used to itch to drive other people's cars after that. But as of now, I am done with my love for driving. The only three places I know in town that matter (home, work, and the dentist's office) are all connected by bus. Seattle is only a flight away. For other things, there are cabs. This aligns perfectly with my aim to live like a minimalist. A car means additional costs for gas, parking, insurance, and maintenance. Taking the bus makes me walk more, meet more people (I have already made friends), and plan my days better. Restricted mobility also means not being tempted to do unnecessary things, like driving 2 hours to a neighboring city for good biryani. I used to do that all the time. But now, I am happier getting home and reading a book than driving to someplace with no clear aim. And if I am suddenly dying to drive all the way to Southern California or Florida, I can always rent a car.

It's funny how things changed with time. My car was my life, and I could not imagine life without driving. Then, Germany happened, the much needed reset button in my life. By doing the same set of activities, I was engaging the same neural networks in my brain. Now, I was forced to develop newer networks, new skills- learn to take the train, learn a new language, learn to make conversation with the bus driver, and so on. Eventually, I reorganized my life around different hobbies that did not involve driving. Even with a driver license in my hand, I do not care to drive anymore. It's a truly freeing experience.