Latest Chart: Annoying your kids and finding Dinah

August 16, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

I stared from the dock at the lake. The placid green-blue water reminded me of the Caribbean, but no Caribbean country featured a collection of tall peaks circling the water. The sweeping mountain range gazed down, offering a vista of a glacier the color of a summer morning peering over the top of the range as if it wanted to play hide-and-seek.

With a little help, some gentle coaxing, and minimal instructions from the friendly (and I’d definitely say optimistic) gentleman running the dock, I climbed into a canoe with a paddle. He seemed to have no trouble whatsoever believing that I could not only paddle the small boat but also make it to a destination and back to the dock. On purpose.

Maybe it was the scenery around me that defined “picture-postcard perfect.” Since arriving in Norway, I’d had trouble holding on to the stresses of my life back home. How could I, when the mountains invited me to take a seat by their side and just let myself be? Everywhere we looked, everywhere we walked, the scenery and the people greeted us with a benevolence that seemed to come from a storybook. How would it feel to uncurl my fist and let all my worries slip through my fingers?

“We’re not making any progress.”

I suppressed a sigh. Maybe it wasn’t so hard to find an ounce of that stress. Especially with a tween and a teen in the same boat as me.

After the nice man at the dock pushed us off, we all started to paddle. The first few attempts took us in literal circles. We’d done some mild white water rafting earlier in the week during the first part of our tour, so I tried to remember what the rafting guide told us to do and paddle according to those instructions.

It didn’t work very well. The girls continued to let loose their complaints into the air above us, and it baffled me for a minute whether the valley was the right place for them to do so. The serenity of the Norwegian landscape had muted my daily frustrations. Hadn’t they felt its magic too?

“This is hard.”

“Here, why don’t we paddle on opposite sides?” I suggested from the back of the canoe. “[Eleven], you and I will paddle on the same side, and, [Thirteen], you paddle on the opposite side from [Eleven]. And it’s your job to make sure you paddle in the same rhythm as her.”

The girls fell into a better cadence of paddling. After 10 or 12 strokes, though, they lost it again. Eleven couldn’t see this at all, of course, since she sat at the front. Thirteen either hadn’t seen it or was concentrating too hard on paddling to care.

Without warning, without saying another word, I started to sing.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day! I’ve been working on the railroad, just to pass the time away!”

“What is that?” Eleven asked as if she’d smelled something rotten.

“Where did you learn that song?” Thirteen asked, her tone expressing her eyeroll.

I stopped singing. “In school. It’s a really old song people used to sing for jobs like…well, working on the railroad. You know, when you needed to follow a certain rhythm to do your work. Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, to rise up so early in the morning? Can’t you hear the captain shouting…”

A rut opened in my memory for a moment. I knew the next few words involved a woman’s name, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. So I fumbled through that part and kept going.

The girls groaned, audibly, but I noticed that their paddling got a little better.

We made it to the miniscule beach about a half mile away from the dock and the boathouse—just far enough to admire our progress but not so far as to exhaust us. We explored the shore for a bit, ducking past a low-hanging tree, following the curve of the short shoreline around to where another member of our tour group had graciously pulled in our boat when we’d arrived. The beach was more like a mini island, explored in a couple of minutes, a small resting spot for anyone who had an inclination to paddle deeper into the valley later.

About 10 minutes after we arrived, one of the tour guides zipped close to us in a motorized boat to let us know that lunch would be served soon and we needed to head back. Once again the girls and I relied on our fellow travelers to push us into the water; they were from Florida and spent as much free time as they could engaging in aquatic outings, so the dad of the family there had no trouble giving the canoe a nudge after we’d all settled with our paddles.

We started paddling, and I started singing.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day! I’ve been working on the railroad…”

“Oh no,” Eleven said with a loud groan.

“Not this again,” her big sister echoed with chagrin. “You know people can hear you, right?”

I broke off my own singing. “So what? I don’t have a bad voice. I can sing in tune.”

My memory clicked into place just then, and the name came back to me.

“Dinah, blow your horn! Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow your ho-o-orn!”

“There’s more?” Eleven asked, incredulous at the tempo change.

“This is distracting!” Thirteen said in a loud voice over mine.

“Maybe that’s the point,” I replied in a speaking voice.

Neither of them had a response for that comment.

I started singing again. I kept singing, noticing that the paddling had fallen into sync much faster on our trip back. In fact, we had little trouble keeping ourselves in a fairly straight line as we worked to get back to shore.

I sang through “I’ll Be Working on the Railroad” another time or two just to annoy the kids—yes, I admit it, that was the bigger draw—before dropping my voice to a volume meant more for myself to sing through the title track of “The Sound of Music.” I couldn’t help it: in a moment like this, I understand what would inspire Maria Von Trapp to let loose on those hills. They did feel alive to me.

The glacier, the valley, that lake, and the Caribbean blue-green water made me grateful for music. For the opportunity to travel. And, yes, even for kids who get annoyed with their parents.

Latest Chart: A (pending) lifetime adventure

December 8, 2017

By Ekta R. Garg

Growing up, I lived a duality. My parents migrated to the U.S. from India in the 1970s in order to make a better life for themselves. Their choice determined the course of the lives of my sister and me.

We relished PBJs as much as rajma-chawal (kidney beans in a tomato-based gravy and Basmati rice.) We listened to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston as well as Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle (famous singers for Hindi films.) We slipped into our jeans for a casual weekend at home or got all dressed up to go to a formal function in a lehenga (a formal outfit consisting of a blouse and a long skirt, coupled with a long scarf, all in bright colors and with embellishments and embroidery.)

Us girls also grew up going to India every three or so years to visit family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles seemed like doting elders who would chuckle at our rudimentary attempts at speaking Hindi and marvel that we loved Bollywood films as much as any kid in India. For my parents, however, those people were their parents and their siblings; the people who held their childhood memories and experiences dear.

My sister and I grew to love our extended family as much as our parents did. After all, there were so many cousins who were about our age, and regardless of culture or language a cup of ice cream still tasted just as good no matter what country we ate it in. We built the foundation for a lifetime commitment to these people that drove almost as deep as what our parents experienced.

Almost 15 years ago, I married someone who was born and raised in India. An immigrant. The immigrant experience is nothing new to me, so when I took those vows I assumed that part of my life would be the same as it was when I was growing up.

Some things haven’t changed. I still love rajma-chawal and have since learned to make a mean chicken piccata as well. My husband and I bond over Adele’s dulcet tones even as we use Pandora to listen to the latest Bollywood songs. I still love my jeans for a casual day out, but I’ve long since graduated to wearing a sari for a really formal occasion.

So, a duality, with its caveats. My children have grown up with this duality as well but in weaker concentrations. Due to my husband’s intense training and minimal vacation time through all the years he studied to become an electrophysiologist, we haven’t been back to India. In almost 15 years.

The pull for us to go had also weakened, however, because both of us can easily visit our parents and siblings here in this country. We don’t board flights and lose almost two days before arriving at our destination. We get onto a plane after breakfast and arrive well before dinner. While my extended family has asked repeatedly through the years when we were coming to visit, the circumstances haven’t always lent themselves to allowing for a trip back.

Sometimes, then, you have to bend circumstances to what you need them to be. After months of discussing and hypothesizing about a variety of scenarios, we booked flights to India. The kids have never been, and they don’t know quite what to think.

When asked by her father what she felt about going to India, Eleven answered, “Underwhelmed.”

When I chatted with Nine about our trip, she said, “I know this is going to sound weird, but I just don’t like it when people pinch my cheeks.”

Our kids are smart and conscientious about the environment; their brows furrow when we talk about the dramatic pollution in New Delhi, which will act as our home base for the time we’ll be there.

We’ve also shared some giggles about the trip. Just after the school year started, one morning as we drove to school I explained that we would meet a lot of people and get offered more food than one could possibly consume.

“So, basically, our trip to India is going to be an all-you-can-eat-and-meet buffet,” Eleven quipped, and she and her sister and I broke into laughter.

This past weekend, I described various members of my mom’s family and their natures; the common factor between everyone on my mom’s side is that they all love to chat and can do so for extended periods of time on a variety of subjects.

“Tell us more about the talk-a-lot gang,” Eleven said, fighting a smile.

I’ve repeatedly told the kids that the only stupid question is the one not asked; nothing they wonder or worry about is off limits to discuss. I’ve also tried to share my own ways of handling a trip to India.

“When in doubt, just smile and nod,” I said. “Just be polite.”

“Just smile and wave, boys,” Nine quoted the penguins from Madagascar. “Smile and wave.”

“But, wait,” Eleven went on, and I opened my mouth already to combat what she would ask next; I didn’t beat her to it.

“What if they ask you a question like, ‘Are you from Minnesota?’” She answered her own query with a slightly maniacal smile and nod.

“But I thought you were from Illinois,” Nine said, jumping on the imaginary conversation.

Both girls nodded and smiled.

“But you’re from Minnesota too?” Eleven said.

Nods and smiles again.

“Are you from somewhere in between?” she went on.

Nodding and smiling.

“Okay, so you’re from Nodsville.”

I relented with an eyeroll. “Okay, so maybe just smile politely.”

We’ve also had sobering chats about the amount of poverty we’ll probably see, the dust that seems to pervade every home no matter just how hard people there fight to keep it clean, and the challenges of the sheer population and traffic and navigating it all. I’m really not sure just what the kids will think and feel when we go to India, although I know they’ll share their thoughts and ideas without reservation when they feel ready to do so.

I’m excited to see all my relatives, to reconnect to that other part of my life and to share those people with the girls. It’s another piece of the “puzzle” that kids always think their parents’ lives are. For me it’s a reminder of the good things of that duality that I’ve experienced my entire life.

And no matter what happens, I know one thing for sure: it’ll be some kind of adventure.

Latest Chart: Mirror images

October 27, 2017

By Ekta R. Garg

Sometimes life events have an incredibly funny way of going around and coming back again.

An opportunity has dropped into Eleven’s lap that we never expected, and it bears a great deal of resemblance to an experience I had the good fortune to enjoy in my childhood. As with me, the opportunity involves travel. She and I didn’t exactly have the same reaction to our respective adventures, but more on that in a minute.

When I was 11 years old, the company my father worked for got bought be a Japanese company. This was in those days when Japan held all the answers to all things tech, and because my father spent the majority of his career in research and development he spent a lot of time there. The Japanese company bought the American company that employed my father and in true Japanese style instituted a cultural exchange program for the children of employees.

Anyone interested in going on the two-week trip was asked to write an essay detailing what traveling to Japan meant to him or her. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I do remember kind of bluffing my way through the essay. More than anything I was curious about whether I’d “win” the opportunity to join the group. That competitive spirit I harbored as a child came out in full force on this one.

The office must have had more entrants than expected, because in the end they held a lottery to choose the names of the travelers. My name got pulled out of the hat along with others from our area, and a few months later I boarded a plane with 29 other American kids and 10 chaperones to visit Japan. Our trip included large cities and a few small towns. We got to participate in a home stay and saw performances of traditional Japanese dances and other arts. We ate and shopped and immersed ourselves in another culture for those two weeks.

I missed home with a longing that made the core of myself ache. I didn’t always eat my fill because I didn’t necessarily like the food offered. But when I came back, my view of the world had changed forever.

Last week, Eleven and Nine’s school emailed a flyer to middle school parents. The social studies and literature/writing workshop teachers have planned a trip to Europe for next summer. The plan is to visit Germany for about five days and then go to Poland for three to visit sites important to World War II, including Auschwitz. The trip is only for middle schoolers, and while the teachers have no objection to parents tagging along they’re fully prepared to host the students themselves.

Eleven would have the chance to travel to a part of the world far away from us and to experience a culture different from her own. She has an opportunity to visit sites that irrevocably transformed the way people all across the world looked at humanity. She could spend almost 10 days with her classmates and test the waters for future travels.

Like I said, life, coming back around. A little strange. Almost freaky, if I have to be outright honest.

When we first found out about the trip, we discussed the possibility of going on the trip as a family. I checked with the teachers, and they’re more than happy for us to join the tour. Eleven got really excited about the idea. With trips the Central Europe and Greece under their belts, the travel bug has bitten both girls (Nine’s utter detestation of air travel, thanks to her motion sickness, notwithstanding.)

After an evening information meeting with the chaperoning teachers, though, we started tossing around the idea of Eleven going on the trip without us. Just her and her teachers and other students. Like I did when I went to Japan.

Eleven shook her head right away. I barely had the words out of my mouth before she said, “No.” I encouraged her to think about it.

“I’m not saying you absolutely have to go,” I said, “but I am saying don’t shut down the idea. Just think about it. Let your brain kind of noodle over it for a few days.”

My husband and I both spent a few minutes extolling the positives of this kind of trip, and I reminded Eleven that at least she knew the people going on the trip pretty well. I barely knew any of the kids or the chaperones on my Japan trip, because they came from all over the country. Eleven agreed to think about it, but her reluctance rolled off her in waves.

For the record, I hate the idea. But I’m willing to talk about it, to consider it. Even just talking about it, I think, is an important exercise in middle school parenting.

As my kids have gotten older, I’ve often thought back to my time in Japan. I remember it with a great deal of fondness, even awe. But I also wonder how my parents had the gumption to let me go so far away, at the age of 11, with other kids and adults. Were my mom and dad just much braver than I am? Maybe the world wasn’t quite such a dangerous place…or maybe, because at that time there was no Internet for the general public, we just didn’t have information on all the dangers.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next June. The deadline for a down payment for the Europe trip is in the second week of November, so I’m sure I’ll be sharing whatever decision we end up making. It’s easy, of course, to make the safe choice. I just don’t know yet whether that’s the way we’re going to go. It’s not the way my parents went, and I admire more and more their guts in raising my sister and me.

Guts; yup. That’s about right. I keep saying I’m not a middle school parent because I can’t possibly be old enough to be one, but…maybe I’m finally finding the guts to start thinking about being one.