This past weekend was a scorcher. It nearly broke some records. Read more »
When I lived near Paris, I didn’t go to see the famous places until the very end. I vividly remember the hectic schedule that I put together to see the Louvre, Les Invalides, Musee D’Orsay, Jardin Luxembourg. You name it and I probably saw it in those last few weeks. With the exception of Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. We both knew at some level that things would never be the same between us again and this girl and I were going through this frenzy of doing things together for the last time.
Here I am, twenty years later, near another beautiful city and I haven’t really seen it except for the Golden Gate, Crooked Street and Golden Gate Park. That is a little exaggeration, because I have seen a few other places, but nevertheless, the city has largely been a stranger to me. In the past few months that we’ve been coming up to the city with Maya, we’ve finally started to get to know San Francisco better.
The day began with Maya wanting to have croissant and milk, her favorite breakfast when we come up to the city. She then wanted to go play at Dolores Park. Summer is almost here and that means San Francisco is beginning its second winter. The wind was shaking the trees like some storm was heading our way and it was cold. Shanthala elected to stay indoors a little longer and so, Maya and I took the public transit and headed to the park. Once we got there, we found that the play structure was sealed off, torn down for renovation. We stood there wondering what to do when we saw an old tram approaching. Papa, lets just get on the tram and go, she said. So, thats what we did.
We got off at some random stop when Maya thought it fit to get off. We wandered the streets a bit and Maya said that she wanted to ride a tram into the tunnel and then take the stairs to surface from the tunnel. Instead of doing our usual run up to Embarcadero, I decided to jump off the tram at the Civic Center. Maya had seen the City Hall from the car a couple of times and so she was eager to see it up close.
We followed a sign titled United Nations Plaza to the surface from the underground. What a beautiful sight greeted us!
The sight seemed straight out of some European city. Maya squealed her delight and started running up and down the wide, pedestrian mall. And her delight turned to squeals when she spotted the fountain behind us.
Signs of how little I know of the world I’m immersed in becomes apparent once again. The entire place is covered with aspects about the UN. Quotes from different people about the need for UN, date the UN charter was signed, a pillar for each year since the UN wS founded with a list of nations that joined that year and so on. I thought that all this was in keeping with the name of the plaza.
Almost seventy years ago, between April 13 and June 26 of 1945, 50 allied nations met in San Francisco with the aim of setting up a global organization that would help resolve conflict through peaceful means. The US along with 50 other allied nations and various non-governmental agencies crafted the UN Charter, here in San Francisco, creating the UN. So, the plaza we were on was not just another dedication to the UN. It was where the UN was founded!
The plaza was mostly empty except for a homeless man sitting by the fountain. Gulls and pigeons were the only other animals that seemed to have more than a second’s interest in the place besides us. Maya ran round and round the fountain, chasing the birds or just watching the water. The fountain is not particularly pretty or memorable.
Back in 2003, the fountain was almost demolished. From a newspaper article published in 2003:
“It’s become an intolerable situation, and we don’t have additional resources to continually clean it,” said Alex Mamak, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works.
Department crews clean out human filth and hypodermic needles every morning, only to find a new mess the next morning, Mamak said.”
Something happened after that time because the fountain is still here and looked quite clean. The only droppings I saw were the birds’.
After exhausting the novelty of the fountain, Maya headed towards the Civic Center, passing a large statue of Simon Bolivar on horseback and a monument called the Pioneer Monument.
Along the way, pillars framed the mall upto Bolivar’s statue with each pillar dedicated to a year when one or more nations joined the UN. One of my memories from history lessons from school is that only 4 nations were not part of the UN, one of which was Switzerland, a nation long famed for its neutrality. So, what do I see on the pillar dedicated to the year 2002 ? Switzerland.
As we approached the City Hall, Maya spotted a children’s playground and took off running. I stayed behind, trying to get different shots of the City Hall.
After lunch, Maya, Shanthala and I headed to Embarcadero where Maya spent a considerable time playing at another fountain, the strange looking structure called Quebec Libre. Constructed by a Quebecois sculptor called Armand Vaillancourt, it is a structure that Shanthala immediately considered ugly, grotesque and an eye sore. It seems to be an opinion shared by others. One critic called it, “Stonehenge unhinged with plumbing troubles” and another described it as “the funeral of beauty in art”. One blog recently bemoaned the logic behind spending $1000 a day to pump water through the fountain.
But, Maya was oblivious to all of this. There was water and she could get wet. That’s all that mattered as she ran along the pathway that took her into the heart of the fountain, with water spilling all around her.
The afternoon turned out to be quite beautiful and warm. Thanks to Maya, we were enjoying a mild summer day in the city that is considered by many to be the city to visit in the US.
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Now the rain is falling, freshly, in the intervals between sunlight,
a Pacific squall started no one knows where, drawn east
as the drifts of warm air make a channel;
it moves its own way, like water or the mind,
and spills this rain passing over. The Sierras will catch
it as last snow flurries before summer, observed only by
the wakened marmots at 10,000 feet, – Spring Rain, Robert Hass
The day began beautifully, with just enough specks of white cloud pinned against a blue sky. It is Memorial Day weekend and summer is almost here.
By the time Maya woke up from her afternoon nap, the sky was gray. I want to go to Dolores Park demanded Maya. Shanthala demurred because she thought that it might rain. The prediction says less than 1 mm, I said, lets take her to the park. So we set out.
As we reached the park, water came down like a fine spray, too fine to be a bother, but not insufficient to be ignored. Maya dashed off to play. Shanthala and I sought shelter from the rain under some slides. The spray turned to drizzle and drizzle turned to a fine rain. Spring asserted a reminder that it wasn’t yet done.
But, Maya couldn’t be deterred. Most parents were scurrying home when we reached the park. The rather crowded park was mostly empty. A group of young people were dancing to beer and loud techno music. Maya stood under the rain staring at them. Soon, she began to sway to the incessant rhythm of the music.
I remembered what Sir Ken Robinson had said in his talk. Why isn’t dancing as common in the curriculum as math and language. After all, don’t we have bodies ? I remembered my awkwardness at dance. My father loved dance music and took the opportunity to shake to the rhythm whenever he could. My mom thought it shocking or at least, unacceptable for a grown up man to do what he did. I imbued my mother’s shame and not my father’s abandon when it came to dancing. Probably, I also felt that if I couldn’t be good at it, I shouldn’t try. How strange, what we chose to copy and what we chose to avoid from each of our parents.
The city, usually a brilliant sight from the park, was almost invisible in the rain.
The night before, Maya woke up in the middle of the night and vomited. She vomited three more times before she slept fitfully the reminder of the night. The sheets were a mess and we retired to another bedroom to sleep. As I struggled to fall back asleep, I thought about how unfazed we parents of this generation are with our children’s malaises such as vomiting. Two generations back, at least in India, it must have been so difficult for a parent to know what to be afraid of and what not to be. Children died of the most simple things, things such as vomiting. But I also think about how easy my parents made parenting seem. I think I’d go mad if I had to stay home and care for Maya full time and cook and take care of the house. And I don’t think this is because I’m a man, thought that may have something to do with it, with how I was raised and what I was told was in store for me.
But parents also thought differently. I know of no one of my generation who wasn’t scared of their father. I don’t want Maya to be scared of me. But she does get scared when I lose my temper, as I sometimes do, when I can’t find a way around her obstinacy to even simple requests. For example, she insisted on eating an unripened banana despite my attempts to explain why that wasn’t a good idea and offering her a ripened one. Sometimes, the explaining helps. The other day, she wanted to wear her underwear back-to-front i.e. wearing what is front at the back. Insisting and pleading that she wear it the right way didn’t help. I then got out one of my own and wearing it the way she wanted to, explained the problems with doing so. She immediately switched to wearing it the right way. My parents would’ve whacked me and made me wear it the right way.
As frustrating as her obstinacy seems, it also makes up for a lot of rewarding moments, because she doesn’t give up at many other things. She did about 10 minutes on the treadmill on Friday. After almost a month of saying she wanted to run on it, but refusing to when I offered to help her, she did it mostly on her own on Friday. I found it delightful watching her slow up the ante, going as fast as 5 mph before deciding that 3-4 mph was far more comfortable. She first figured out if she could stop the treadmill when she wanted to, without my help. Then she slowly increased the amount of time she spent walking before she switched off and integrated (that’s my theory) the experience. Then she increased the speed. She is resolute in trying to figure it all out by herself, asking for help only when she’s in trouble or can’t figure it out.
The year is almost half over. I often wonder how effectively I use my time. Maya has been listening to Pink Floyd’s classic “Dark Side of the Moon” of late, especially the song Time. It was one of the first songs whose lyrics stayed with me. I especially ruminate over the ending.
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say
I’ve always rejected the notion of hanging on in quiet desperation. I’ve rejected waiting till I’m older, more settled to do something more such as explore the world, play the guitar or enjoy a sunset. What no one told me about parenting is that it involves a lot of waiting. Everything else has to be mostly put aside for the first few years. At least, that’s how it has seemed to me. I wonder if half-scribbled lines is all I can show at the pearly gates. I’m so numbed at the end of the day, I just lapse into mindless activities like browsing or checking email (not even responding) instead of doing something more productive. It takes me a while before I can tackle chores or even indulge in a little writing.
Life knows no moderation. We have this relentless demand on our time when they’re young and a relentless ache in our hearts when they’re older and not around as much as you like them to be. Why can’t you, life, show some moderation, moderation that is demanded of us for a good life.
Yes, I miss my solitude. But then, when Maya holds my face and says “I love you Papa”, as she did for the first time last week, with a tenderness in her eyes that made me think she said the words with knowledge, not a mere parroting, I think the price has been worth it. I remember that with parenting, time has a beauty that is both casual and intense.
There were orange poppies on the table in a clear glass vase,
stained near the bottom to the color of sunrise;
the unstated theme was the blessedness of gathering and the
blessing of dispersal—
it made you glad for beauty like that, casual and intense,
lasting as long as the poppies last. – Spring Rain, Robert Hass
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When I went to Paris in the fall of 1990, one of the first things that I did, like everybody else, was to go see the Eiffel Tower. Take line 6 and get off at Dupleix metro station, my colleagues told me. Stay by the right window and you’ll be treated to an especially grand sight of Eiffel Tower from the metro, they said. Sure enough, one of the most lasting memories of Paris is the first sight of Eiffel Tower as the metro goes over Pont de Bir-Hakeim. I looked up Wikipedia and lo and behold, it lists the view as one of the most breathtaking panoramas of Eiffer Tower (this is the best photo that I could find that was licensed under Creative Commons). I liked this photo (on Flickr too) much better.
Now many years later, in a city half a day’s plane ride across the world from Paris, I face a similar sight. In San Francisco, as the J-Church metro emerges from behind houses onto 20th Street, seemingly snaking its way through people’s backyards, I’m amazed by a gorgeous vista of downtown San Francisco. This point marks the crest of a little hill from which the tram steadily descends the rest of the way, burrowing deep underground until it reaches the end at Embarcadero. As the tram pauses at the station at the intersection of 20th and Church, I can’t stop myself from snapping a picture from my iPhone.
Today, the first day of spring, as the city emerged from behind dark rain clouds and the steady rain that it brought for the past two days, I liked the way the light caught the city towers.
On sunny weekends, Dolores Park is a hubub of activity. This past November, on a particularly glorious fall evening, as Maya played in the park below, I tried to capture the end of the day.
San Francisco is a beautiful city. It is fast becoming the city of my adult life, much as Bangalore was the city of my childhood and home.