Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sleeping with the enemy

I was surfing the web the other day for my preferred educational and spiritually uplifting material, when I hit a site that was all about embarrassing moments in bed. I have no idea why this site came up under educational and spiritually uplifting material, and I don’t know what was on it because I naturally closed it immediately and washed my eyes out with soap, but it reminded me of a story that would be tragic if it weren’t so ridiculous. It pertains to a moment early in my career, before I knew why it is important not to sleep with your boss.

I would like to say, at the outset, that I am fully toilet trained, and that none of this is my parents’ fault.

So anyway, there I was, sleeping with my boss. It’s not the way it sounds; we were travelling on a low-budget project, so while our male colleague got his own room, it was cheaper for us women to share occasionally during our two weeks on the road. The boss was the mother of a baby girl, and since the baby was just a few months old and breastfeeding, she went where the boss went.

At the end of a rough day of travelling and visiting villages, I collapsed upon the bed with the boss on the other side and the baby in the middle. “I hope she doesn’t wet the bed,” said the boss, by way of apologising for the arrangements, and then we said good night and turned out the lights.

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. That night I had the misfortune of dreaming of a beautiful waterfall, next to which I was talking to some people while installed upon a white ceramic potty. The sound of the waterfall and the feel of the potty were so charming, and my bladder felt so full, that I decided to try out a tiny little pee, since it would be masked by the sound of the cataract, and my companions would never miss a beat. I chatted graciously, and peed surreptitiously, until it suddenly seemed to me that something was dreadfully wrong.

I opened my eyes around 5a.m. to find that I had relieved myself—nay, was still copiously relieving myself—in my bed, next to my boss. My nightclothes were soaked, and so were the sheets. I leapt out of bed and galloped wetly to the bathroom to shower and change, trying out and serially rejecting possible conversational gambits. When I emerged, the boss had opened one sleepy eye. “Good morning,” she said. “What are you doing?”

I looked wildly at the infant to see if I could blame her, but it was clear that a creature her size couldn’t possibly have produced what looked like eighty-five litres of urine. There seemed no possible way to maintain my dignity, so I took the first of many difficult executive decisions one has to take in one’s working life.

“I peed in bed,” I said, adding truthfully that this had never happened before. I could see her struggling with her face before she gracefully, and very much to her credit, assured me that this sometimes happened when people were very tired, and she was sure I didn’t do this regularly. Then she ruined it by saying “And there I was, worrying about the baby.”

As if this weren’t a sad enough story, the boss and I eventually had a great falling out. I imagine that if you’re going to fall out with someone, the fewer hideous stories they know about you, the better, but telling this one myself might be my way of telling her, in a blast of withering repartee twelve years later: You can’t fire me, I quit.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Oenophilia 101

Some years ago, my body informed me in no uncertain terms that it had had enough of my nonsense. I raced out of the house and went straight to my physician at the local hospital, elbowing less critical patients out of the way. “Help me, Doc,” I gasped. “I don’t seem to be able to drink anymore.”

She looked a little more pleased than I thought was strictly necessary. Then she told me that sometimes, the body just stops producing the enzymes that help digest alcohol. “It can happen overnight,” she said, fairly gurgling with satisfaction, “to anyone,” she added happily, and then delivered the coup de grace, “but it happens more often to women. Just like that, simply, you wake up one day, and you can’t digest the stuff.”

So just like that, overnight, I took to drinking nothing but wine, and almost exclusively red wine, since everyone knows that that’s positively good for you, bursting as it is at the seams with resveratrol, anti-oxidants, bioflavonoids, vitamins, minerals, and quite possibly an oral form of sunscreen as well as hot stock tips.

But to start drinking wine is to enter shark-infested waters, especially if you think you might belong in the sad quarter of the world’s population called ‘non-tasters’ because their three or four taste buds were long ago beaten to death by cigarettes and green chillies—as opposed to the quarter who are ‘super-tasters’ and can’t open their mouths for fear of having their millions of eager beaver taste papillae leap out and start exploring.

I was at a winery in France some weeks ago, undergoing my first lesson in wine tasting, which was really a simple guide in how to observe the colour and opacity of a liquid, and gauge the general pleasantness or unpleasantness of its smell and taste, but felt a lot like being tutored on how to do long division in your head and then being asked to calculate the trajectory of the space shuttle while a NASA scientist looked over your shoulder.

The world of wine connoisseurship is very rarefied, and can be horribly snotty. The real pros have a truly amazing ability to identify a wine and its vintage by taste alone. But it’s when people start reviewing wines that you can microwave some popcorn, sit back, and prepare to be entertained. I can quite understand that one might detect vanilla and blackcurrent and honeysuckle and chewiness, but when people reach for metaphor, things can get absurd.

There’s nothing quite as personal as taste, particularly when it’s in your own mouth, so I just decide whether I like a wine or not, and that’s all. The Japanese have invented a robot sommelier that analyses food and drink by infrared analysis, and can correctly name the grape variety of a bottle, and add that it’s full-bodied. That sounds like the sort of basic thing I could use, even though the robot once identified a cameraman as bacon. In its defence, we have the word of several competent cannibals that people do taste quite a lot like pork.

The robot can’t be deeply descriptive, of course, but I feel much more persuaded by a review that says “This is a totally excellent wine, try it!” than by one that pinpoints, say, hints of marsupial sweat on the skin of an arabesque, or the prudery of satin slippers languishing in a light winter snowfall. I just won’t pay money to taste hot koalas and wet shoes.

Call me boorish, but for now I’m just going to stick with “I like this one” or “I don’t like this one”. If someone really pushes me, I can always make up something about notes of creamed swan feather marinating in a tragic rhombus.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Party smart

I’m crawling, beaten, towards that time of year when you’re supposed to be all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. At the end of each day you’re meant to fling on your best clothes, paint yourself up to look smokily seductive/blingy/young, paste a grin on your face, and teeter out into the lethal miasma of suspended particulate matter, carbon monoxide and firecracker smoke that is the night air of Delhi, to play cards, or celebrate Diwali, or attend a wedding, or a Christmas party, or a New Year’s party, or drinks and dinner with friends.

The trashy newspaper supplements have a way of using a phrase as if it were a one-word noun, such as the phrase-noun “ourhecticmodernlifestyles”. It’s used as if it’s an absolute value, and a good one, and not to be questioned. This one has a particularly revolting wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality to it. I stayed up until five in the morning doing a report, then I figured I’d drink until seven, after which I went to the gym to fill up the two hours before my nine o’clock high-powered meeting with the Board! The more exhausted and unhealthy I am, the cooler and more successful I must be! I think I feel some chest pain—let’s skip lunch and have another meeting!

It’s a total mystery to me why people sigh with secret pride over how little they slept, and how madly busy they are, and how much they have to do, and how much junk food they eat, and how many hours they spent on a plane that week and how their phone never stops ringing—the one they just upgraded so that they could have phone calls and web browsers and satellite and the hotline to Mars and be in touch at all times.

You would think that in the face of said ourhecticmodernlifestyles, people might find it useful, at the end of a workday, to eat, watch a movie, read something or otherwise relax, and get eight hours of sleep.

The problem is that this city is bursting at the seams with the sort of big, fat, hairy machismo that you associate with a Beverly Hills teenage bimbette, or a certain type of Sicilian underworld thug. And so the result is that going out to dinner is inevitably a matter of leaving at 9 or 9.30 pm, drinking for a few hours on an empty stomach, then stuffing yourself with food somewhere between midnight and 1am, and falling into bed at 1.30am in order to be up around 6am.

The weird thing is that the same newspaper supplements are simultaneously banging on about how important it is to be healthy and in shape. The secret, apparently, is to exercise, practice yoga and meditation, drink lots of water, eat frequent and small meals bristling with fruits and vegetables, have a midday nap, eat your last meal of the day no later than 8pm, and retire at 10pm to get a solid eight hours’ sleep.

It’s called a change of pace; but since that would mean (gasp) modifying ourhecticmodernlifestyles so that they’re not quite as hectic, the next best thing is to gulp antacids like bonbons, pop vitamins and supplements, get the newest concealer for dark circles, and buy clothes that flatter whatever sorry shape you’re in—advertisements for all of which can be found in the self-same trusty supplements.

Here’s my impossible dream: That one day Delhi’s hosts will insist that their guests arrive at 7.30pm, to enjoy one drink before dinner is served at 8pm, following which everyone is welcome to another couple of drinks before saying good night at 10pm.

It beats catching up in the ICU at the age of fifty.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Visiting baby

Last week I met an American nephew of mine for the first time since he was born four years ago. He’s a delightful little chap—shiny of eye, pink of lip, round of tummy, juicy of bottom, and bright as a button to boot. He’s given to saying things like, “I much prefer to eat it off a plate, thank you”, or “I’m frustrated!” and using words like “mayhem” and “fragile”. He’s obsessed with trains, which he can play with all day and night, and with cars, which he can identify by make, model and year. He gives you dutiful but unflinching hugs. He’s very, very sweet.

When he and his parents landed in Delhi late at night, we stopped by to eat dinner with them. Little Sumer was deceptively easy to deal with at first, requiring one only to hold a cushion in front of one’s chest while he ran at it and head-butted it with all his might. When we crawled, exhausted, to the table, we were looking forward to a nice calm meal. But there is no such thing when there’s a four-year-old in the vicinity.

First he knocked over a glass of water, which anyone might have done, and it occasioned nothing more than a mild ‘Oops’ from the gathering. A few minutes later, he experimentally popped a whole teaspoonful of salt into his mouth as people lunged wildly across the table to try to stop him. He looked a little green around the gills and became unusually quiet; then he turned his head at a tragic angle, opened his mouth, and let loose the sort of bright yellow projectile vomit that the demon in The Exorcist could only dream about. The angle was such that it hit a maximum number of surfaces—the plate, the table, the chair he was sitting on, his clothes, and the floor.

His parents barely batted an eyelid, managing to clean up the mess, strip and bathe the child and coo at him while barely breaking their conversational stride. Changed, powdered, and seated at table once more, he announced, “I threw up!” in case anyone had missed it, and then politely demanded a Coke. He picked at the rice, fingered the rajma, and fretted until Coke was poured into a small glass for him in the hope that it would settle his stomach.

Satisfied, he began to sip at his Coke while we gazed tenderly at his little face rising like the moon above the horizon of the table. The next thing we knew, there was a hideous cracking sound. He had, against most odds that I can think of, bitten off a chunk of the glass, and was frozen in an aspect of prayer—head deeply bowed, mouth tightly closed, eyes glazed with concentration, the rest of the shattered glass in his hand. I could only gape at him in slack-jawed admiration, thinking, I want to learn how to do that, but his parents were considerably more agitated, trying to get him to open his mouth, and yelling at him not to swallow, and shaking him by the shoulders so much that the glass dropped from his hand.

This last finally triggered his self-preservation instinct: he opened his mouth, releasing a mouthful of glass and cola to bawl, out of a face screwed up and red with grief and loss, “My Coke! I want my Coke! My Coke has fallen all over the floor!”

I was able to leave for my very quiet, peaceful home about three minutes after this, with a long-standing hunch confirmed: if you want to make a lifetime commitment, buy a house; if you want to experience parenthood, visit someone else’s kid.