Meet the Bon Vivants: Nirmala Thangam Thomas -- on Catherine Sylve

Meet the Bon Vivants:  Nirmala Thangam Thomas -- on Catherine Sylve

Here in English class, we took apart (I'd use the word ‘dissected’ to get their attention) passages of prose or poetry and study the different parts under the microscope of literary analysis, then put them back together to see why and how they worked so well together to create the expression on the face of the page. It was a stretch, but I’d add:  “Just like Mrs. Sylve does with her robots."

 

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Silicon Valley Girl -- Stories to Read on the Shuttle

Fiction Series:

Silicon Valley Girl -- Stories to Read on the Shuttle

The Eel

I married young, divorced young, and threw myself deeply into work as a way of escaping my reality. I ran like this for five years until I hit utter collapse. Teaching painting to teenagers in a depressed neighborhood had become an emotional drain and I resigned a few weeks into the new school year, numbly extending my summer retail job. While this decision met the restrained horror of my immigrant parents, I had been a reliably overachieving youth and they gave me wide berth to work it out. I, however, was not to be trusted — I put my brain on hiatus and made only lame attempts to pull out of my stupor. Yes, mother, an idle mind is indeed the devil’s workshop:  For the first time in my life, I had time for texting, time for new people, for long and languid lunches, for gossip, for lounging, for drama. 

I never steal, but I have always been aware that if I were destitute I might, like Robin Hood, find a justification for theft. I stole him from a friend. My justification:  She didn’t understand what she had in him. I did. I had every right to snatch the long-lost companion to my soul.

Over the course of a classic San Francisco Sunday brunch, I found him comical and overwritten. Every twenty minutes or so, he picked up a British accent, but then he did grow up in Mumbai. He worked in the Financial District, drove a Mercedes, and wore custom-tailored suits (my friend had informed me on our drive into the city, all her boxes checked). A fiancée had left him for reasons unclear, and I was called upon to provide a second opinion. He wore the right sunglasses and chose a hip restaurant— So far I, wise Indian guru-friend with brain-on-a-break, approved. He and my friend were flirting lightly and I was the clear-eyed third wheel. As the day progressed I wished for reasons to exit the situation, but I had been tasked with evaluating the prospect so evaluate I would.

The prospect would look deeply into my eyes every time my friend left the table to powder her nose. She disappeared to check her face quite frequently, both because she liked him a lot and because she didn’t find me threatening. Or maybe because she trusted me. I’m sorry. But it was mostly his fault, because this is my story. During the few minutes at a time that we were left alone that day, he told me I was beautiful, got my number, and fished out the details of my tragic divorce. I was hurting? Well, well so was he. And so we were fast friends.

The Eel was not tall, he was not intellectual, he was not my type, did not make me laugh, he was too distracted to adore me, but I loved him because he was like my uncles, a post-colonial prince — sleek, spoiled and proud and pouty. He was the definitive ladies’ man, every word dripping. His brothers were ladies’ men, even his 70-year-old father, that old perv, even he insisted on giving his sons’ girls full frontal embraces every time he saw us, even though I’m not sure that’s a culturally acceptable practice in old Bombay. But the Eel didn’t need to conform to the practices of Bombay, or San Francisco, or anyplace at all. I know this about my uncles and I knew this about him. He had grown up with so much more money than the common man that the common rules did not apply to him. In the old world, women pine for the opportunity to be associated with the post-colonial prince. They forgive him offenses they would not forgive a cash poor man. 

But he had become a bit cash poor. Somehow, for some reason I don’t comprehend clearly, his star had fallen a little. Each time we bumped into one other at parties, our conversations grew longer. He had suffered in love. I had suffered in love. He had experienced financial shift due to his loss of focus, I was dealing with a pause in career due to sheer fatigue. I was climbing out and managed to cope with the help of a therapist. And he would learn to cope thanks to my bottomless well of empathy. I took on a new cause. 

I became a 24/7 helpline. Of course, I’m not utterly selfless. I believed he would heal and be forever grateful and love me ’til death do us part, my good deeds rewarded. But he set me straight:  His heart would always belong to the one who got away. He assured me that he would die without me; his greatest fear was that I too would leave him, and could he take me out for dinner that night? And in this way, I was seduced into girlfriend duty while signing away my right to demand even an ounce of affection. I was to accept that his heart was permanently broken, and I was to accept him as a beautiful but broken man who could offer me only exquisite dinners of exotic seafood and secret-menu dessert (compliments of the chef), prime seats at the symphony, gifts from business trips to Asia (that were not the best he could afford and not exactly my taste, as if he had purchased them with an aunty in mind but ran into me first). He once bought a piano so that his party guests could hear me play, he filmed and led the applause. I stayed on the phone with him every night until he fell asleep, feeling obliged by all this grandiosity, not realizing that the exchange was my companionship, that this was indeed an exchange and not a bestowal. 

He somehow polished me, though. I had been a teenager during grunge and aspired for Marc Jacobs girl languor, but he nagged me like my mother until I learned to fling my shoulders back and stand erect. When we would run into his FiDi friends, he would introduce me as an artist and I began to believe myself as an artist in mid-caprice rather than a teacher in hibernation. I moved from the East Bay to the city and started making more paintings. He gave me constant feedback through the process of setting up shop for myself, and proposed — business partnership. I took a corporate day-job in Silicon Valley which I started to like very much. I made new friends. Each time a love interest surfaced, the Eel grew devoted. When I shooed the love interest away, the Eel would recede too.

On days when he saw my devotion wavering, the Eel told me he would take it upon himself to be my publicist. He proposed — that we take my work to the international fairs. I had to share my art with the world, and he would be the purveyor of that art, why, he had the means to get me on the cover of SF Magazine. I’m the first to admit that I am incurably vain, always believing myself destined for a fashion shoot, and began a series of intense diets in the effort to be camera ready should his opportunity materialize. He preyed on that vanity, and observing my quick reaction to critique he began constantly tweaking me in the name of his project. I was ever on edge, but kept my shoes shined, my lipstick bright, and despite the protestations of my dear ones, went on swaying to his whims. I would continue to stay up until 2 am every night for two years, listening to him grieve over the past, over every daily tragedy, and reassuring him about the future, yes, if he died, people would attend his funeral. And yes, I would deliver the eulogy.

And then, slowly, his grief must have begun to dissipate. I was still the receptacle for his tears, but he began taking other girls out on the days we did not see each other. He would take them out, take them home, then call me up. I wouldn't realize my stupidity until I woke the next morning to see the party pics clogging my feed. Girls and girls and girls, without rhyme or reason, smart girls, dumb girls, ugly, short, thin, tall, beautiful girls, all of us assuring him that yes, he was lovable, he was talented and he was wonderful, and that he was indeed the big man on campus. 

He fancied himself a chef. Worst of all was the tiramisu phase, which began when he took down my recipe after a dinner party and decided to make it his own signature item. He drove all over the bay gathering ingredients from gourmet groceries and pinged me all night asking for details on the assembly of this particularly simple dish. I don’t think he slept at all, as he went on to make ten individualized tiramisu — cutting paper stencils and cocoa dusting them with initials or even whole names, depending on the size of container available — for ten different women. I met many of them over the next year. He left the city when we all started crying at him at the same time. We can hardly look at each other now for the shame.

And now, I have turned to see that there are other boys, nice boys whose minds are well. I am embarrassed that I kowtowed so desperately. I am ashamed that I was enticed by the fragrance of his materialism. I was blinded by the remnants of the money that slipped through his fingers. His cars. His three piece suits. His Rolex. His rich, occasionally British, voice.

And then I remembered. I have my mother’s rich postcolonial voice. When I finally sit still and remember all that I am and all that I have to offer, I will gain her regal bearing.

Today, for old times' sake, I went to his favorite restaurant in North Beach and tried to order eel with pickled mushroom and watercress, to show myself that I was truly over him, as if I could let the oily fish slide around my plate without association with him. They were sold out. I took it as a sign.

Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit: Beauty Sleep

Beauty Sleep

On a sun-dappled Friday, in response to some long-winded, rambling, oft-repeated complaints, a friend chastised me for selling myself short in romance (You know who you are and I thank you.). As the day went on, her argument consumed me, and that evening I, in turn, berated another friend for selling herself too short, forwarding along an inspiring screenshot from friend #1. I was harsh and cutting, yes, because I saw my behaviors in hers (You also know who you are, and I’m very sorry.). When we finished texting, I flung my phone in frustration.

I took the long weekend to stop and think. I ignored all calls (a real feat, as my dear friend Flor has diagnosed me with e-OCD). I sat up in bed tapping my chin and sometimes slid down into long naps. One of the most productive weekends of my life.

Between sleep and dreams, I realized it is important for a woman to respect her womanhood. Expect to be loved. Demand love. Don’t slip along timidly accepting anything less. You are not Casper the friendly asexual ghost. Assume you are pursued because you are loved and drop anyone who is demanding of your time while offering something less than love. “Wow,” said Flor when she read these words, “You’ve come a long way, MST!” Well, I hope so, Flor. It’s about time. And it’s about time. We must stop friend-zoning ourselves. Friend-zoning is at fault. Texting is at fault. Ghosting is at fault. Emojis are very much at fault. We don’t have time. We are each looking for someone beautiful and respectable and intriguing enough to love, but we have to learn to put that quest in the background instead of making it the prevailing topic of all our lunch hours and girls’ nights and smudged and deflated after-parties.

So let’s fill our lonely hours with activities we enjoy, the arts and travel and eating and exercise, leisure pursuits that build up, with people we love and who love us too (!). Our lives abound with healthy relationships, with people who are loyal for the simple reason of shared blood or a history that includes a thousand inside jokes; they ride out bratty behavior, buoy us through loss, hear a tremble behind the words “I’m fine." Our parents, our nieces and nephews, our old college roommates await. Let’s seek them out, revel in an unconditional affection which heals and feeds. This way, we remain whole, vital beings, growing richer and finer over time — rather than allowing ourselves to be chipped at and hurt by the careless who don't really mean to inflict such harm but nevertheless cause a lot of lasting damage. Love yourself, said my friend, and demand love from others, I say (always shooting for the extreme), and settle for nothing less. You have better ways to pass the time.

And when the pickings are slim, nay, nada-null-zero, Sir Charming hasn’t stepped up and there’s no one with potential that you’d like to pull from the pool, spend a luscious weekend in bed. We can all benefit from beauty sleep.

Meet the Bon Vivants: Tom Quinn

Meet the Bon Vivants is a new series that showcases the work of my favorite thinkers and good-lifers, all personal friends with important ideas and interesting musings. 

In Life of Pi, a novel singularly notable for its premise, Yann Martel makes the case that belief is an intellectual choice that takes great courage. It should come after an examination of available options and then tested for its ability to sustain one mentally and emotionally, even physically though life's trials. The spiritually-inclined Pi chooses as his mentors those who, like him, make the human search for meaning a priority and take a considered stand either for or against the concept of a divine plan. Pi spends time evaluating the statements of many adults in his life, from Mr. Kumar the atheist scientist to Father Martin the Catholic priest, patiently questioning each one in an effort to understand different means of organizing the universe and which rings true for him. 

I'm glad to know just such a seeker in real life -- Meet Tom Quinn. The Scottish-born writer, psychologist, and educator shares his personal quest in the following interview featured on jw.org. Tom and his wife Karen have been incredibly kind, perceptive, intelligent mentors during my own journey, and I am forever grateful for their friendship. 

empath, heal thyself

From Writing to Heal by James Pennebaker --

"Since the mid-1980s an increasing number of studies have focused on the value of expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people's sleep habits, work efficiency, and how they connect with others."

creative non-fiction: Mr. M

The following essay, from the collection Le Midwest: an ode to the noble suburbanite, illustrates the impact of one dedicated teacher on my early professional choices.

Mr. M

One fine day:

1 We all want the same thing, don’t we? A little kid’s picture of paradise looks so similar to a big person’s picture of paradise with a swaying palm tree and a smiley-faced sun. I’ll paint my dreams and forget about making all those statements about war and injustice. Statements are tiresome. I’ll go walking to the market for bananas with my man and go fishing with my babies and I’ll do mehandi for visitors and I won't have to sell my paintings in paradise or do graphic design because we’ll just live off the land. A little garden, some chickens, a boxer dog or two. 

“You’ll go far, Michelle, Rani G,” Mr. M— said before he disappeared too far away for me to hear clearly. “Everything you touch becomes gold, you see that, Michelle?” And then he left me all alone. But he gave me a foundation. Confidence in the art that I make, a confidence that cannot be found in any other part of my personality. I’ll go far. What’s far, Mr. M—? Far away? To my pretty bungalow by the ocean with fancy friends and beautiful children, a handsome husband, two boxer dogs, and walls full of paintings?

2 She shrugs her shoulders and bats a little shine into her eyes, sighing deeply, “Ah, you darlings. I appreciate your concern, but we’ve done a thorough investigation into the matter.”

“Did you speak to any students?”

“No. It was a confidential matter.”

“Then what investigation, ma’am?”

Politics labels passion as lunacy. Labels a goodbye kiss as sexual harassment. Discipline as discrimination.

Don’t expect us to get motivated.

A lovely homogeneous family is created with two namesake black teachers who kinda want to bust out but have got to grin and hold on to those good suburban-school-district jobs. The noisemakers are only noisemakers because they know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who can get something done. Any other noisemakers are sexual harassers, bigots, or lunatics.

3 As I pulled the oxidized skin off the ink in the tin, that orange, crusty rust off to reveal still moist Vine Black #2, still alive after a year without moisture, I thought of you. Your ink. The ink you left behind for nobody to use. I turned around and all the Mona Lisas gone and the Giacometti sketch, Walking, the “essence of energy and movement and activity,” and the ballerinas and Romare Bearden poster, all disappeared. Ran off with you.

Seniors don’t rush around with mats and erasers and slide carousels anymore, getting ready for the spring contests and exhibitions. Rachie looking a little winded with no one to argue with and all subtlety lost on Mr. K—, the potter. And I’ve graduated to a place muddled in pretension and shaky hot air philosophical abstraction. Shhh. I was anticipating that, but I was counting on visiting you like a jet up for air before another plunge into the deep end again.

My folder was still there with every drawing intact, and the print you promised to mat on the last day I didn’t know was the last day was matted and framed. Complete as promised--“Not neat, not nothing.”

You didn’t touch her.

“Not neat, not nothing,” inside out, outside in. Now nothing left.

The classroom was so still early in the morning with no Drawing I freshmen tumbling in to cram a value scale before 8:00 (no excuses). Just K— in his office and Mrs. S— next door. And I’m standing there not just missing you, but missing my table, waiting for the bell with Jon and Anuj who snuck in from K—’s study hall and the day I first walked in when you proclaimed, “Girl, you’re good, but here you are going to learn how to take on the world.” And the senior with the red button-down eyeing me from across the room, in that seat. And how you never let the silly boys visit me during school study hall except for Sidaker because he was Indian and intelligent and could help me with physics. 

Remember Gesture Day Fridays? Drafting tape made from blue-jean lint covered masking tape and, “Draw, draw, draw, 30 seconds left, 15 seconds, two seconds,” a long pause, then, “Aw, guys, I gave you too much time. . .”

You made Mike a true bohemian. At Webster, now he only goes by his Russian name and and he likes to stand on the tables and talk about art the way you did on the day he transferred to North from the Jewish school.

We talked to her. She said you were crazy. “I can’t give you any details, but. . .” Grave smile.

Bureaucrat.

Anyway, I broke all school rules and didn’t get a Visitor’s Pass because I’m not a visitor and I went to our drawing room and I felt you died. I couldn’t feel a clean plaid shirt and braided leather belt and Levi’s and loafers and an oddly matching tie. I couldn’t smell pink erasers. I’m looking around the corners and behind the flat file trying to show you my new piece, wanting to hear, “Rani G, Rani G, (which means the Queen of G[raphite]), you have a Midas touch, girl, you make this job worth it.” And so I went there and missed that buzz so badly and saw the crusty skin on that always wet ink and was tottering around the room, looking in the hallway for Camran or Mr. R—, someone who could share this loss. The wet, moist, fecund ink crusted over like a scab, but when I pulled the dry skin off I found you, and I went about inking the plate with a righteous fervency, knowing I learned from the best. You put me on that hot-air balloon and got the fire red and roaring and then vanished so that when I turned around to find you I choked for a moment but found out I could fly now on my own. What’s it like now? Do you miss us? Teaching at a place where half the students have a universe on their shoulders and no energy to explore?

“Why even bother teaching, Mr. M—?”

“There’s a burning building, Rani G, and you’ve got a choice:  Do you save the Rembrandt or do you save the cat? One one now, Rani.”

“The Rembrandt!”

“No! The cat, the cat! The cat is still alive, it’s still breathing, it’s still got a whole life to experience! Save the cat.”

And so now I’m having fantasies of standing in front of a class and loving every one of those kids and giving them nicknames like Commie and DJ Ho and Cami and Sphynx. I’m having these dreams of standing in front of a class with a gray pleated skirt and an oddly matching sweater, saying, “I’m Miss Thomas,” before I start banging the projection screen with a yardstick, praising the rhythm and balance in a lonely Hopper.

You.

I found you, I found you, I found you when I found that still breathing ink, like a commission to stand on tables and to make them come to class on time and to coax them into a habit of classical music. I’ll drop graphic design in a flash if you say the word. I can just imagine, “I taught you everything you know so now you can help scam America, staring at a blue screen blinking away your regret.”

Today I missed you so much. I missed you so much.