November 30, 2016

M is a risk taker

My wacky daughter Marina showed us her inner moxie during a recent school assembly. Every student in her grade had to recite something in front of all the other classes in the elementary school--in English. She has been immersed in English for less than four months. Here’s what she said:
“I am a risk taker because I try new things like new foods and living in a new country.”

We could not have been more proud of her. 
I don’t know why this little episode has struck such a cord with me, but it has. I want it on the record in the Rising Daughters’ compilation of stories.

November 27, 2016

It’s not about the fish

Me and my Dad (late 1970s?) admiring our catch
Usually around Father’s Day dads are often described using flattering words that appear on refrigerator magnets—heroes, teachers, providers, role models, beer drinkers, and BBQ masters. My brother and I are blessed with a great dad. This post is about the last part of my summer trip home in August 2016 when I went fishing and camping with my Dad and Steve-O at the annual father-son weekend trip in Frontenac Provincial Park

These father-son August weekend gatherings first started over three decades ago with a group of young dads who worked together and decided to take an annual fishing/camping trip to spend time with their sons. My uncle Pat introduced Dad and Stephen to it after I had left home for Japan, but I have enjoyed both times I have been able to go with them. It’s a way to bond with my Dad and maintain the bonds to my Canadianness.
How does it work? All the "elders" (the original young dads), their sons and grandsons form up vehicle convoys and head out. They meet for a casual greeting and beer at a favored gas station along the way. The convoy arrives at the park’s campsite registration office. No vehicle access—you either hike or paddle to the camping areas. Put in the canoes, load ‘em up with gear, grub and beer, and head off on Big Salmon Lake. (The lake's name alone would make Tom Thompson proud.) What campsite is selected depends on the number of participants. The two times I’ve gone on the trip the father-son group has numbered somewhere between 15-20 dudes. 
We sell these weekends to the womenfolk in our lives by emphasizing the importance of fathers spending time with their sons. The relationship a boy has with his father greatly shapes the man he will become in the future. Camping, canoeing and fishing allow you to spend some needed one-on-one time with your old man. There’s no overt face-to-face “talking about their feelings” (not that there’s anything wrong with that…nod to Seinfeld here). It’s much easier to impart life lessons to your kids when you’re doing something side by side, and just let the talk flow naturally as you cast a fishing line or tinker with tools, set up tents, or light camp fires.

Most of the time on these father-son outings the action involves a fair amount of beer drinking among the adults. And there is definitely nothing wrong with that. So the basic line of activity goes like this:
Paddle out to campsite. Set up the tent, tarp and cooler. Quench thirst. Maybe drop a line in from the shore, maybe go for a swim. Uncap, quench thirst, repeat. This past August, the first day on site was wet. It rained overnight. I was bunking with my polymath cousin Mike, his friend Mitch and assorted kids. The rain delayed things but eventually the skies brightened – and thus did our mood -- and I went fishing in the canoe with Dad for several hours on Big Salmon Lake. I caught six bass but they were all too small to keep. About the same level of success for the Old Man. 

Some random thoughts I scribbled down:
- The assembled group changes slightly every year but they are all great guys from every walk of life.
- Chili for dinner one night, beer battered fish the other. Yum!
- I spoke a lot about Nissan cars with the guys—our common ground for conversation. Some chatter about the Toronto Blue Jays. I can talk with real live Blue Jays fans, not just listen to Mike Wilner’s Sportsnet 590 The Fan podcasts from halfway around the world.
- Dark nights and stars above, campfires, quiet, and unhurried conversation which starts with who caught what fish and where.

- I got up at 0530 to take in the morning sun and absorb the quiet. I make a note to self about modern working life defined by 24/7 connectivity and the tyranny of passwords.

- More fishing with Dad; Steve and I get equal time. Dad needles me: “You gotta keep the rod, up. Constant tension on the line.” I am a father myself, well into my mid-40s...and you gotta laugh, because regardless of age or life stage fathers cannot help but continue to dispense wisdom in the form of mild critique. I love my Dad.
- Pancake breakfast on the day we go back to real life. Dad’s spicy sausages. I take a break from the tent and gear tear down to read about Dirk Pitt’s sea adventures in a Clive Cussler thriller while I lean against a fine-smelling cedar tree.
- Bro Bonding: Went out with Steve-O in the canoe. What a great person. We canoe into the headwinds. Neither of us are coureur des bois. But this time we did not tip over and soak his iPod. Progress! 

- We canoe back to the dock/access point. Everyone does a methodical and logical tear down, say goodbyes, and pack our cars for the trip home. Steve-O heads off in the Impala, I go back with Dad in his new Nissan Maxima and we stop at the Dairy Queen in Carleton Place for manly vanilla cones (no sprinkles, please, we're men), hit the Beer Store, and cap the trip with a dinner at Shawarma Palace in Britannia.
- I savor a final Bud Light and watch the Jays one last time that evening. I am on the plane back to Japan the next morning. 

So, these father-son outdoor adventures are about much more than fishing!

November 13, 2016

Breathless and cashless

The air we breathe lately is the same as smoking two packs of cigs a day, and we have no cash --seriously.

The Rising Family is genuinely happy in India. Then again, we also knew and accepted there would be challenges that came with the opportunity to experience life here. Let me describe a few of the problems that we face along with everyone else in this huge, vibrant and chaotic land.
Courtesy of Times of India
Physical environment: Misty, smoggy skies, hard to breathe
The World Health Organization recently confirmed that Delhi still tops the list of the world’s most polluted cities. The ranking was based on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels that were almost four times above daily safe levels. This past week, a thick, pungent smog settled over Gurgaon. It was a combination of smoke from crop burning in surrounding agricultural states, construction, gigantic fireworks celebrations held on the Hindu festival of Diwali, and accumulated dust. The pollution peaked at 800 micrograms per cubic meter, later decreasing to 423. I now have a new app on my iPhone to track air pollution right next to; have to keep things in perspective, right? 
Courtesy of Times of India
Needless to say, due to the terrible air quality schools closed and the government took certain measures, but it was ultimately Mother Nature that helped bring it down to the present “tolerable” levels of between 250-400. Life goes on, wheezily:
- Lady E. and M.X.’s school was canceled for a few days.
- All the schoolkids are encouraged to wear masks to school. A city of mini-Dr. Lecters!
- Temporary halt to outdoor activities, and an increase of potted plants inside the school.
- At home, Naomi shrewdly had shipped air purifiers from Japan when we moved, and we added a local one this week, so we battened down the hatches of our apartment like a submarine and kept the air purifiers running all the time.

If the cloak of haze and eye-stinging atmosphere weren’t enough, I was genuinely amused to read that sustained exposure to anything over 600 ug/m³ at PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day. It was described as the worst smog event in two decades. I’ve been told this is the reality until early spring; typical for this region. Hack, wheeze, and cough. All the more reason to hate winter.

Fiscal environment: Can’t use your cash
Courtesy of AFP
On Nov. 8, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a snap press conference and announced that 500 and 1,000 rupee currency notes would no longer be accepted as legal tender as of midnight. Whaaa? Anyway, my WhatsApp started buzzing, and honestly I thought it was a hoax. 500 rupees is about $CAN 10 bucks, 1,000 rupees twenty. Replacing them is the new 2,000 rupee note--“coming soon.” Imagine the Canadian PM saying within a few hours' notice that the $10, $20 and $50 bills were banned, banks will be closed for three days and the country will have to get by on Twoonies until they reopen, and you must exchange all your abolished cash notes to boot. Not a ticket to popularity, that’s for sure.

But this is India. My take is that this very sudden move by the government is focused on culling back the proceeds from tax-evading black market deals, graft, and some political dimension which I will not opine about in this blog because what the hell do I know? I’ve only been here 2½ months.

I do know one thing: cash transactions have wound down to a minimum, credit card and debit card deals have gone up. But for the many exchanges that cannot be done electronically, what do you do? You don’t. In my company’s cafeteria we’ve resorted to I.O.U’s and running a tab for the curry lunch fans among the 200 employees. For any cash actually paid, the change is doled out in candies or packs of chewing gum. It’s like a prison barter economy.

My colleagues have displayed a British-style resigned humor, grin-and-bear-it approach. Yet there is a cash crunch. On Saturday morning, like hundreds of thousands of people across the nation, the Rising Family ventured out to banks in an effort to get some much-needed cash. There were long queues of people all trying get new notes and exchange old ones at every bank and working ATM in Gurgaon. 
There were varying levels of organization and blatant line cutting that happens here. But no riots. Well, one near-riot… 
This is a country of 1.3 billion people. There are people EVERYWHERE, and many of them were agitated to have to try and secure their cash situation.  We went to one sort-of mall with several banks in it but were thwarted at every turn. One matronly-looking lady offered us some advice to try another bank in the mall, but it was saturated and would not exchange money for non-account holders. We ran into the same woman on our dejected slog out. She clearly had been in the line for hours to get her allocation of 4,000 rupees. After she’d heard we’d been unsuccessful this gentle soul immediately offered us her 4,000 rupees broken out into the approved 100 rupee notes, saying she didn’t really need them because her kids were grown up, and she’d exchange more tomorrow. What a display of generosity and selflessness. We were taken aback—did she really mean it? Yes, she did. And frankly we were down to our last few hundred rupees so we thanked her and accepted 25 percent of her offer. Her act was pure altruism, and we have experienced many such wonderful examples of the warmth and kindness of Indians since we arrived here.

The other side of culture coin: people aren’t afraid to argue forcefully in public. Traffic accidents often draw crowds. So as we went around to many bank branches to try to withdraw money from ATMs or deposit all our now no-good cash, we saw some pent-up frustration and yet more rueful resignation. Our final Hail Mary branch visit saw me get to the threshold of the service area when the staff rolled down the steel curtain and told us to wait. We waited. Some line-crashers were verbally accosted. Some people with connections with the bank staff were whisked to the front. The temperature rose in the crowded space. Finally, after some 45 minutes of waiting and sweating (it is still about 30 degrees during the day here), the bank manager came and announced in Hindi and English that the system wasn’t functioning and the bank would be opening on Sunday morning at 10:00, terribly sorry and all that. Again---whaaat tha $#@*!!.  
Then a red-faced and clearly pissed off guy started banging on the steel curtain divider and the security guards came in. This resulted in high-decibel yelling and a brief flurry of mild punches between two silver-haired pugilists—bedlam, baby! I left my place in line for a much-deserved iced Americano. The barista claimed that “business has never been better” as he swiped my debit card with a knowing smile.

...and yet we are happy and are fortunate to be here 
We left without any cash and went home, chalking the experience up to forces beyond our control. It’s something we are getting accustomed to (boo-yah!). Both the air quality and government financial curveballs thrown our way are things we have to take in stride. Part of the adventure. So I suppose we have our own grin-and-bear-it quality, too. And I daresay the entire nation was experiencing similar cases of good and bad behavior as people adjust to the new currency reality and the more dire environmental challenges that await. And yet we all smile, the hazy sun comes up, and life goes on. Namaste!