Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Allowed and Proud!

"I'm really proud of myself," he said as he stood next to a large Lego truck on our coffee table. With his hand still in mine from leading me to his masterpiece, his eyes scanned the finished toy. He showed me the doors that opened and a rocket launcher on the hood.

"You should be proud, buddy! This Lego set is for ages 10 and up, and you did it all by yourself!"

"Yeah, it was hard sometimes and I didn't find some of the pieces right away, but I just kept trying. I'm very proud."

I scooped up my 6-year-old son in my arms and squeezed him tight. He smelled like ketchup and oranges and I breathed it all in; his scent, his warmth, this moment.

"I'm proud of you too, bud."

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I sat down this morning to start this post with zero idea of the subject matter. With a rather busy week since the last post, I thought for sure I'd get some kind of inspiration, but unless I write an entire post about the intricacies of self-taping auditions, there was little to go on. As I stared at my Blogger page, frustrated with the emptiness in my brain, I noticed how this would be my 25th post. I grinned at that realization and began to reflect on when I started writing this blog last October.

I had just turned 40 and felt a stagnation within myself that, frankly, pissed me off. One day I was in my Google account and noticed that, oh yeah, I had started a blog back in 2012. Impressionista was supposed to house my comedy in both written form and videos of impressions/funny anecdotes. After two posts, I pulled a Sheevani and abandoned the project. As I stared at the dated design and old headshot, my tendency to have very little follow-through with my goals stared back at me. I shook my head with disgust and my mind was swirling with so many thoughts... thoughts about my life, how I had spent my time and energy for the last few years, how I was currently feeling... thoughts that I had expressed in conversations, thoughts that people agreed with and sometimes were entertained by. Hmm, maybe there's something there.

Then I started writing The Reluctant Stay at Home Mom. Then I posted it. Then I got some supportive feedback. Then I thought about other things to write about... and so on and so on. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. It was as if I had broken a dam of creative energy in my brain and the ideas just flowed in. It was, and still is, invigorating.

Not including this post, I have published 85 pages and over 48,000 words on this blog where the views are close to 5,500. Sticking with this project is shifting so much in terms of my confidence and value. As I've written about in previous posts, my self-worth has been a constant area of struggle. But now, after dedicating a lot of time and effort to putting my thoughts out in the world, I feel... proud as hell.

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Back on October 23, 2018, my finger literally trembled as I clicked the 'Publish' button. I had no expectations or agenda... all I knew was there was an urgency inside to demolish my naysaying thoughts that have plagued my progress for most of my adult life. Only I was going to make that happen... I had the power... I was He-Man.

To everyone who has taken the time to read, comment, message and stop me in person to let me know how my posts have affected them, please know you have helped me find a purpose I so desperately needed 6 months ago.  This blog has been my own Lego masterpiece of sorts, and just as my son's pride glowed so brightly for his work that day, I know there is no shame in being proud of mine... I, too, may not find some the pieces right away, but I will most definitely keep trying.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Marriage Scoreboard

"Everything ok?"

He was watching the same Parks and Rec episode for the 40th time and giving short answers to my customary questions after not seeing him all day: How are you? How were the kids? Did they eat okay? How was bedtime? It had been a particularly busy weekend with rehearsals, shows, and coaching so the reason for his demeanor was easy for me to diagnose.

"Uh well... I guess, it's just getting to be a bit much."

"What is?" I asked, bracing myself.

"Look, I really support your dream and this improv stuff, but... I don't know... like, what's the end goal here? You're giving away a lot of your time without getting paid and I just..." he trailed off and looked at me with a mix of annoyance and remorse.

I knew this conversation was a long time coming. My clairvoyance about it, however, sure didn't give me the good sense to respond properly. My defensive shield was slowly rising up through my body like the Baryon Sweep eliminating radiation particles from the USS Enterprise-D (whaddup my TNG NERDS). Was he seriously calling ME out for being gone too much?!? Ohhhhhhh... bring it on, Paul.

The conversation devolved into a blubbery mess where I shamed Paul for making me feel worthless. He was bringing up valid points... points that were a significant source of irritation for me as well. I had done what so many creative people do; overcommitted to too many projects. Also, I was very frustrated that the fields of sketch and improv comedy were basically volunteer gigs, and most of the time it's a sunk cost. Every week I was driving at least 2 hours round-trip to every rehearsal or show, paying downtown Denver rates for parking, performing for almost empty houses... it was taking its toll as much as the highway toll... was taking its toll. See, shouldn't I get paid for this?

So, Paul and I were actually on the same page, but on that Sunday night, I chose to make Paul the villain. He was trying to say that I should realize the value of my talent and time, but I took it as an attack that I was wasting my time with a frivolous hobby. How dare he say that after EVERYTHING I've done for him, dammit! If we're going to talk about who is gone more for their own shit, well mister... one of us is deeply in debt and it AIN'T ME!

Ah, the "keeping score" trap. It'll get ya every time.

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I wasn't sure what to expect from marriage. I'd heard about how hard it could be, how communication is the most important thing, how compromise is the cornerstone of a good union... and of course I was well aware of the bleak divorce rate in the country. I'm also an optimist. Going into my marriage over 11 years ago, my expectations were pretty broad. It was a very "go with the flow" mentality that I believed would work in our favor... don't make too many rules and then you could just figure shit out as it comes. Well, after all these years, we've had to figure a lot of shit out and sometimes I cannot help but think who has given up more.

ASS out of U and ME
"We need to talk." Oh, did your butthole just tighten up? Mine too and I typed it! I've never been great at having serious conversations and annoyingly, I didn't magically master that skill after getting married. Paul is in the same boat and we sail compulsively on the waters of withheld thoughts and concerns. I know I'm to blame for our tight-lipped relationship since my serious convo track record is fraught with tears, defensive attacks and over-dramatic monologues. Progress has been made, believe me, but the battle scars of the past have no doubt affected Paul's comfort level with expressing his feelings, particularly feelings that may upset me.

Since we avoid confrontation, both of us assume way too much. We assume everything is fine because neither of us seem bothered. But, both of us act like we aren't bothered because we are avoiding an uncomfortable conversation. It's a vicious cycle. Part of me also struggles with the whole "pick your battles" method of self-preservation. Which issues warrant the dreaded conversations and which just require a deep breath or two? This is a huge hurdle when it comes to feeling like I'm being taken for granted. Too many times I opt to gulp it down and hope the emotions dissolve away.

Sheevani or Ofpaul?
My primary mission for the entirety of our marriage has been to bring some balance to Paul's life. This makes me feel a bit icky... and saying it makes me feel icky makes me feel even more icky. I'm proud of being a supportive wife, but my feminist side hates to admit that many aspects of my life revolve around my husband's convenience. The actions range from small (letting him skip family events) to huge (moving to Denver) with the sole purpose of seeing him at peace. Let me explain; I've married an intense person. Anything below 100% effort is not where he operates and that has only gotten more potent with time. I've lost count of how many times I've reluctantly agreed to a decision with the words, "I just want you to be happy."

While I didn't map out what our marriage should look like, I guess I did subconsciously presume that things would have a 50/50 feel to them. Things like big decisions, parenting, individual time, etc. Going into our union, I knew Paul's ambition would put him on a path to a career that would require a lot of time and travel, but until we became parents, I didn't see that as much of an issue. After our daughter was born in the middle of his masters program, we knew the first few months would be really tough, but once that program was over, we'd achieve a better balance. Well, it's almost 9 years later and I'm still waiting.

I've finally woken up to the reality that it's not up to me to hand him balance. Just as I admitted this to myself a few years ago, you cannot assign your happiness as someone else's responsibility. I'm not saying Paul has been guilty of that... he hasn't been looking to me for his balance and contentment; in fact he knows he needs to figure it out himself. I guess I'm just getting impatient. For my part, I feel I've done all I can to keep an open path for his ideal life, and now it's up to him to change whatever he feels is falling short. But for a perfectionist like him, I'm not sure that's possible without him feeling like he's disappointing people. And by people, I mean people he works for/with, because I'm used to having altered expectations. His career often pulls rank and I've made the necessary adjustments to shield him from the burden of guilt.

Comparison is Futile
Oh boo hoo for me, right? No, it's not that simple. I'm not saying I deserve a medal or anything, people do this all the time in marriage. But, from many conversations I've had with women over the years, it seems to mostly be the wives who are running interference for their husbands in order to maintain a drama-free home life. This isn't about feeling sorry for myself or saying I'm suffering because holy hell, I am not suffering. This is about loving a man who gives so much of himself to his career and feeling helpless against an avalanche of stress that sometimes makes him hard to recognize.

Keeping score is pointless. How do you compare such abstract elements in a marriage? Last I checked, there's no key in the back of a book. Does packing lunches every morning equal shoveling the driveway? Who can tell if making sure the kids are up to date with their doc and dentist appointments is the same as making sure our taxes get done. Do I get more points for cleaning up a bathroom accident than he gets for helping our daughter construct the perfect science project? Can I really say it's unfair when his absence is mostly due to work and I don't have an income? These types of equations are more complex than that Good Will Hunting chalkboard problem in the hallway!!

Still, I sometimes find myself abandoning that logic and feeling a great imbalance. I think about how many times I've quietly accepted his absence when I really wanted him around. I think about how I never make plans without first thinking about how they will affect him. I think about how many times I've had to comfort the kids because Daddy is traveling or busy with work. And most of all, I think about how all these internalized feelings are starting to affect my own mental health. When it comes to granting him some time to himself for both work and pleasure, I never say no, even if I want to. The few times I have said no, I immediately feel like a sack of shit.... I cannot win.

It all comes back to opening my damn mouth and telling him my honest feelings. Because you know what? He listens. He really does. I've married an intense man, and part of that intensity is his love and respect for me and our family. And hell, he didn't expect to be the sole earner of our household. My current role wasn't in the plans for either of us, but as we navigate this crazy ride, we are trying all kinds of scenarios that satisfies us both. While I get in the ruts of self-pity, I yank myself out with the confidence that both of us love each other and truly want the other to be happy. That is one score that is never out of balance.

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I cannot guarantee I'll ever stop falling into the trap of keeping score. As life gets more complicated and stressful times ebb and flow, I know I'll get frustrated and feel taken for granted. However, out of respect for myself, I will try not to feel guilty about expressing my true feelings to Paul. As this bod gets older, I'm not so resilient to keeping shit bottled up, so I'm gonna let it out! The important thing is that we work together to figure out a balance, because I really haven't given him the chance to be a partner in that realm. Yup, that's right... "We need to talk," is going to roll off my tongue with ease pretty soon... I just hope Paul's butthole is ready.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sheevani < Perfect Indian Daughter

"Did you call, Sheevu?" Daddy asked.

"Huh?" I stalled.

"Did you call Sangeeta's office?"

"Oh, um, yeah. I left a message, but she hasn't called back," I lied.

"If you don't hear back by tomorrow, you should call again, bheta."

"Yup."

I hadn't totally lied. I did call, but I didn't leave a message. My parents, mostly my dad, had been hounding me to try and get a summer internship at a law firm, seeing as how I was going to be a lawyer... apparently. A family friend's daughter was a practicing attorney, so she'd be the perfect person to contact. 

I had no real plans to pursue law. I was barely keeping my head above water at Michigan State as a Political Science - Pre-law student. The ruse was a burden, but the fear of admitting the ruse was ten times as heavy. Going through the motions of being a future law student, it was only logical to try and get an internship. Only, this was a possible internship with Sangeeta Gandhi, THE Sangeeta Gandhi. In our house, she was regarded as one of the "most brilliant" girls in our community. My whole life I had heard about her accomplishments from college-level courses in high school to being one of the youngest partners at her firm, with a mountain of accolades in between. Just saying her name in our house prompted a Pavlovian response from my parents... only instead of drool, they would light up and repeat one of her many successes with grandeur and dramatic flourish. 

She deserved all of the praise and admiration, believe me. I loved visiting with Sangeeta whenever we'd go to her house, but most of the time she'd be holed away studying or out doing something more fun than hanging out with a girl 10 years her junior. There was never a hint of superiority to her, even though she excelled at just about everything. In addition to being brilliant, she was an incredibly kind and generous person. The fears about working with her were completely on my side of the net.  

After dodging the internship queries for another week, Daddy threatened to call Sangeeta's father. My dismissive excuses had backfired into what I thought was impossible: Daddy was disappointed in the almighty Sangeeta. 

"I'll call Haren and see what's going on," he said as he grabbed the cordless phone from between the couch cushions.

"No, Daddy... don't!"

"Bheta, don't worry."

"Please, Daddy, don't call Haren Uncle!" 

Right on cue, Daddy's expression changed from one of confusion to suspicion.

"Sheevani... did you really call Sangeeta's office or not?" his tone was everything I deserved. Actually, it was way less than I deserved... pathetic liar that I was. 

"Well... yeah, I did. But..."

"Don't lie!" 

"I'm sorry! But... I don't think I want to intern with her."

"Why not? This will only help you, bheta!"

"She's so smart, Daddy! I'd feel really intimidated and stupid around her!"

I was staring at my lap, but could feel every ounce of disappointment emanating from my father's eyes. We sat in silence and I saw him place the phone next to his thigh. He took a deep breath and I peeked up at his face in slow motion. His eyes were fixated on a distant focal point, the rapidity of his blinks surely matched the speed of his snowballing thoughts, all of which I was terrified to hear. 

"Okay."

Wait... okay? OKAY?! No, bring on the yelling! Tell me I'm being ridiculous! Shame me! I'm ready!!

There was no need to say anything else... that one word confirmed everything I already knew: I was a disappointing Indian daughter.  

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I recently listened to an interview with the CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani. She was a guest on Armchair Expert, my favorite podcast, and while discussing her childhood, she described herself as the "Perfect Indian Daughter." My ears perked up at that term and I knew exactly what she meant even before Dax Shepard (the host) asked her to elaborate. The Perfect Indian Daughter (PID) raised in America by immigrant parents is, in a nutshell, an overachiever. She gets perfect grades, attends top schools, receives academic scholarships, embraces religious traditions and Indian culture, marries an approved Indian boy... you get the picture. I was surrounded by these daughters growing up and saw firsthand how this path overjoyed all the parents. However, there was always a disconnection between those daughters and me... like a faulty wire or malfunctioning microchip in my make-up that prevented me from reaching those standards.

Ever since listening to that episode (twice), I dove deep into my "imperfect" path, full of winding roads, potholes, steep grades and u-turns. Candidly, I'm nervous to write about this because I'm hyper-paranoid about unintentionally inviting sympathy. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I'm trying to figure out a way to write about the areas where I feel like an imposter or failure without eliciting condolences, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. I've never subscribed to the "woe is me," way of life. In fact, I've swung the pendulum of self-criticism so far the other way that I'm actively trying to forgive myself for having very human flaws. Speaking of flaws...

Lazy Dayz
I'm a lazy ass. I really am. It's my core competency. There have been periods in my life where I didn't fight it and then times in my life, like right now, where I fight against it every minute of the day. Pretty sure that any overachiever is not lazy, so I had that going against me from the start. When I think back to the last few months of college, I literally get queasy. Not only because of the copious amounts of Vanilla Stoli and Cokes I drank, but at how much time I wasted lazing around. It was the height of my lazy era. Part of that was a depressive state of knowing I had very little to show for my college career and part of it was just my preferred state of existence. 

From ages 22 to 29, my efforts in the professional world were minimal at best. For those of you following along in my posts, you may notice those years overlap with a big chunk of my career as a Merchandise Planner. Granted, I'd have spurts of motivation where I did bust my ass to get a promotion or new job, but mostly it was to give the appearance of ambition. After I had frittered away my college years with a useless (for me) area of study, I still thought I could jump back on the Perfect Indian Daughter route by working my way up from data entry clerk to high powered corporate executive. 

During one of those bursts of ambition, I got accepted into the Executive Training Program at the first company for which I worked. My father was so proud. One day, I heard my dad on the phone with his cousin in India. "Sheevani just got accepted into the Executive program at her job! It's a very good thing, yes... she will be trained in all different departments and at the end, she will be placed at a high post in the company." I was practically blushing sitting next to him, his hand on mine as he shared my career news. Even though I knew a life in the corporate world would never fulfill me, that moment almost changed my mind. 

Alas, those motivated moments were fleeting and my inconsistency in work ethic led to one of the most humiliating experiences for me professionally. At my last job prior to the decision to stay home, I received my worst performance review of my career.  

"We're noticing you spend a lot of time on the internet during the workday, Sheevani."

My face went numb and I acted confused. I fumbled around to explain that I keep my browser open to keep tabs on my Gmail account, but that I wasn't...

"Well, we do see keystrokes, clicks per minute, websites...  it's all here..."

I was handed a piece of paper with graphs and usage percentages. The figures all blurred and I was suddenly aware of a pulsating vein in my neck. If there was ever a moment I wanted to be Zack Morris with his "time out" powers, that would have been #1. There I was, thinking it was going to be a normal Sheevani-type review; good communication skills, always on time with reports, positive attitude, etc. Nope. I got called out and I wanted to melt away into the floor. While incredibly mortifying, it was certainly a wake-up call I needed. 

As I wrote about in my post about self-worth, there have been a number of factors that led me down the path of least consistence. Between trying to keep up an image of what I should be doing and feeling empty inside while doing that, I'd go through periods where my frustration would shut off all motivation. My laziness would take over because I didn't give a lick about the work. I felt so useless and ashamed. 

Today, I know better. I mean, there is still a lazy lady inside me, but most of the time she is dormant save for the occasional rainy/snowy/PMS-y days when I set her free. But, mostly I embrace the feeling of hard work, whether it be organizing all the closets in my house, going to the gym 5x a week, or writing pages and pages for this blog, sketches, one-woman show or other projects. I finally found the "fire in my belly" that my father always told me about and turns out I can be a total workhorse when I want to be... and honestly, I am thankful for my lazy side sometimes! It allows me to reset, so I can focus on kicking some serious ass in the future. 


Competitive Disadvantage
I'm not competitive. Whenever I heard about a PID getting a full-ride scholarship, winning some math competition or skipping a grade, I'd think,"Wow, that's awesome for her... that'll never be me." Call it self-criticism or just self-awareness, but most of the time if someone got something over me, I'd just chalk it up to the fact that they were more talented, worked harder and more deserving. 

But why? Why couldn't I be one of those girls? The internal exploration for this post had me wondering when and why I decided I wasn't smart enough to reach those heights of achievement. I mean, I remember school being easy early on; I could read before Kindergarten, concepts were well within my grasp and, for the most part, I was able to coast along without a lot of effort. Things started to change in junior high, however, when homework and complex concepts were introduced. When something wasn't clicking, I recognized a need to up my efforts in order to understand. This was especially true in math and science, two subjects my father said were "most important." I worked just enough for Bs in those subjects, but not hard enough for As. 

Between my aversion to hard work and little desire to be the best, I glided my way to mediocrity. As school got harder, instead of putting in more hours of studying, I quietly accepted that this wasn't the area of my life where I would stand out. Inside I was okay with that, but for the sake of my parents, I felt bad that I would never be the daughter they could brag about at parties. There would be no, "Sheevani is going to the state debate championship," or "Sheevani was selected to visit the Governor as one of the top students in Oakland County!" But, didn't I want to make my parents proud? Of course I did, but perhaps I didn't feel the pressure that others felt? It wasn't like I was surrounded by deadbeats. My dad had 5 degrees and when my mom wasn't booked solid at the salon, she was busy taking care of us and the house. My world was full of people who were the opposite of lazy and unaccomplished. I looked up to the girls in my community who excelled and I remember feeling envious of their success. Not a bitter jealousy, per se, but I just wished I was as naturally gifted as they seemed to be. It's hard to explain, but deep inside I just knew I could never compete with them... so I didn't. 

I'm still not a competitive person, and I'm kinda sorta starting to forgive myself for that. I believe finding solace in doing your best, but not being the best, is nothing of which to be ashamed. That is an important distinction. For years I have felt less-than because I don't have this competitive spirit just bursting out of me... I've blamed that as a reason for my perceived failures. Everyday I'm trying to accept this part of myself and also recognize the beauty of it. I'm married to an ultra-competitive person and while he has so much to show for his hard work, there is also this constant "I need to be doing more all the time" energy that I'm thankful is absent from my persona. Being a supportive presence is where I excel, and I can certainly live with that. 

Studying for a Husband
When Reshma explained her PID path, Dax expressed how it seemed very progressive for these immigrant parents to want their daughters to achieve so much for themselves. After a short pause, Reshma said "Yyyeesss, but..." and went on to clarify that a lot of times, the achievements are to build up a good resume to find a suitable husband. Whoa, that went backwards! Again, I could totally relate to what she was saying. Now, I know many Indian parents who do not subscribe to that line of thinking, thank goodness, but I certainly do remember a lot of the PIDs being discussed as good "bait" for boys who come from good families. Shudddderrrrr...

I never dated Indian guys. Well, I barely dated any guys, but when I did, they weren't Indian. There wasn't a self-imposed ban or anything, in fact, as a young girl I always imagined finding a nice Indian boy to marry and carry on the traditions I grew up with. My parents also never made any rules or conditions, but it didn't take a clairvoyant to guess that they wanted to find me an Indian boy who was a "good match." Whenever the subject of marriage came up, I made it perfectly clear to my parents that they would have nothing to do with that decision. We had plenty of spirited debates about the pros and cons of arranged marriage and they usually ended with me saying, "If I marry the wrong man, the only person I want to blame is myself." 

With my mediocre credentials, I was very aware that I would not be a desirable candidate for the Indian boys and their parents. Perhaps that's why I didn't even try to date an Indian guy. One time I did express to my parents that I kind of liked a boy in our community and my dad's first reaction was to say, "His mom would be the first to stop that." I didn't ask him to clarify because I didn't need any further explanation. The boy was from a very well known and prosperous family, so he was a sought after eligible bachelor. Who would he/his parents choose?! Well, certainly not a girl who had never taken an AP class! 

Look, my dad was just being honest and while that comment did hurt, he certainly wasn't wrong. This was just the way it was in our community. Now, in the interest of being fair, the guys were also required to have an impressive roster of accomplishments, but staying true to the rules of patriarchy, it certainly wasn't as high a bar to live up to. At any rate, my jackpot fair skin and hazel eyes couldn't outweigh my unimpressive academic record and lack of accomplishments, so I resigned myself to pursuing non-Indian dudes. This wasn't some big sacrifice or shattered dream. As I wrote about in another post, my identity was always torn between my Indian self and the non-Indian surroundings of my upbringing. Truth be told, my ideal marriage scenario for years was fueled by the show Mad About You, so I was much more interested in finding my true love in a Paul Buchman-type played by Paul Reiser and whattayaknow? I found my Paul Ignasinski

False Pedestals
A huge self-realization moment in Reshma's life was how unfulfilled she felt even after taking the PID path. In the interview, she talks about working herself to the bone to get into Yale Law School, and that when she got there, she didn't feel the validation she so wanted. After that, she landed a lucrative job as an attorney where, again, she sort of hated her life. To me, the Imperfect Indian Daughter, this was kind of a shock. All this time I thought I took a "wrong" path and if I had only done what Reshma and so many of my friends had done, I would be happy and successful with really proud parents. 

I don't think this is the case with every PID, but it was sort of refreshing to hear from Reshma. Granted, she's still hugely successful, but admitting that doing everything "right" didn't fulfill her, and that she sort of had to start over on a totally different path was something to which I could completely relate. We all have our own ways to our true selves and success is not necessarily defined by a certain college, a handful of career choices, or marriage method. 

For so long, I have felt less-than in my community. Most of the time it is probably my own projection, but there have been explicit instances where I have felt judged and looked down upon by other Indian women... women who I have put on pedestals for as long as I can remember. Only recently did I realize that those pedestals weren't necessarily deserved. My scope of worthiness had been so narrow and specific; so perfectly designed for those women who made me feel shitty that I turned a blind eye to other characteristics that make someone a truly good person. It took about 25 years, but waking up from my shame coma has been a glorious experience. The only pedestals I recognize now are populated by Beyonce and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. 

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Feeling imperfect has been my own self-imposed demon. I want to clarify that all this talk of being a daughter who fell short of expectations was borne out of my own insecurities. My mother and father never once made me feel like I was a disappointment in their eyes. They always encouraged me and told me how many strengths I was lucky to have... if only their voices could drown out my inner monologue of negativity.

There are days when I'm really proud of where I am today and days where I cannot help but curse my bad habits and decisions of the past. I'm not sure I'll ever really get rid of the shame of falling short of what the Perfect Indian Daughter should be, but I know that I can own my path and figure out how to keep improving every single day. I still want to make my parents proud (my dad from the great beyond), but more than anything, I strive to make myself proud. Of all the people I know, I am the least forgiving to Sheevani Desai Ignasinski... and now I'll try and forgive myself for referring to myself in the 3rd person. It never ends!!! 

I no longer chase perfection, but I do chase self-improvement and to me... that's a life worth living. 





Thursday, April 4, 2019

Bharati Desai

Bharati Desai lives in a world of authenticity 
~~

"Sheevani, you've got good technique. Maybe you could be a hairdresser!"

It was Saturday evening and preparations were underway for a night out in East Lansing. It was my last year at Michigan State University and the bars saw better attendance from me than my classes. My roommate asked if I could curl her hair, so I set her up in my bedroom in front of the make-shift vanity constructed from the cheapest material a college student could find.

"Umm, no... I think Sheevani could do MUCH better than that!"

My roommate's older sister was visiting for the weekend. She was at least 4 years older than us and didn't ever let us forget it. In the 15 hours she had been at our place, no comment was left un-criticized or dismissed because we were "soooo young." My breath tightened at that last comment and I forced a tight smile. I mean, how could she know? I looked in the mirror at the reflection of my roommate whose eyes were as big as saucers.

"Sis, shut up..."

"No, I'm serious. The women I've come across at salons aren't the sharpest tools in the shed! Super trashy. I mean, good thing they can do hair because most of them can't do anything else."

My heart rate was speeding up at the awkwardness of it all. I tried to reassure my roommate through facial expressions that I was okay, but it did not work.

"Would you shut up! Sheevani's mom is a hairdresser!"

Boom.

"Oh... I'm so sorry, I didn't mean..."

"It's fine, don't worry about it." I said. But it wasn't fine. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled and my throat was suddenly dry and holding a lump the size of the foot in big sister's mouth. She didn't insult my mother directly, but it was close enough. And I was honestly very shocked at how angry I got within 15 seconds of a person deriding her profession. It wasn't like she said my mom was trashy or stupid, but apparently that didn't matter. I learned that day that if someone so much as insults the general vicinity of my mother... I'll cut a bitch.

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When I asked my mom if she'd be okay with me writing about her for this week's post, she looked a bit surprised and said, "Okaayyy." That response suggested she needed further clarification, so I explained how I think her story is so interesting. "Oh, I don't think my story is anything special," she brushed off. And that humility about her life and accomplishments is a big reason I wanted to write about her.

Not only is it special... to me, her story is extraordinary.

Contractor #9
Being the 9th child can be pretty chaotic. With 6 older sisters and 2 older brothers, my mother felt like she had 10 parents growing up. All opinions had to be considered and most life decisions had to be approved by numerous mother and father figures. Bharati Contractor couldn't make a move without majority endorsement of her elders.

One summer break, my mother attended a cooking class with her older sister (#3, Sarla), in order to hone some skills in the kitchen. The college where she took the cooking course also needed models for their beauty program. At 5' 5", my mother was considered quite tall, and was asked to model some saris and also enter the school's pageant. For a girl who didn't know how to apply her own make-up, she was shocked to win the title of Ms. Gulistan College. From that pageant win, she was offered modeling work from a big sari wholesaler, which for many girls would have been a dream break into the entertainment business. Her pictures would be in the popular Femina magazine and distributed all over the country.

Alas, her 10-person parental panel did not approve, and she turned down the chance to break into the modeling world. Actually, not all 10 were in agreement. My grandfather, who was very liberal for his time, was all for it. However, my extremely religious grandmother cringed at the thought of her daughter's image plastered everywhere for thousands of people to see. While I'm sure she was a bit disappointed, I don't get the sense that Mummy feels like she missed out on her calling. There is no resentment towards her family for steering her away from those opportunities. Her beauty queen glory was short-lived, but remembered with fondness.

19th They Meet, 26th They Marry
Whenever I tell people about my parents getting married, I've always said, "They got married 2 weeks after meeting!" I'm sorry to report that I've been a liar for many years because through the conversation for this post, I learned that it was actually ONE WEEK. They met on Saturday, January 19, 1974, and married on Saturday, January 26, 1974.

We romantics out there may think it was some whirlwind affair where they saw each other across a crowded room, sparks flew, and they ran off and eloped in the name of love. Sorry, folks. My mother and father getting hitched isn't a story replete with soap opera style drama, but I think it's pretty fascinating.

I'll try to summarize:

  • My mom was actively seeking a dude after a couple other suitors fell through. (Remember this is India, the land of arranged marriage where parents are actively involved in finding suitable spouses.)
  • My dad, nearing 40, was the subject of much concern from his family since there was no lady in sight.
  • My dad, who was already living in Detroit, came back to India to attend a funeral. The same day of the funeral, he was to attend a wedding in the evening. Since he had been emotional all day, his brother suggested stopping by a friend's flat to freshen up for the wedding. That friend happened to be the husband of my mom's sister. 
  • My mom came to visit that sister the same night. As she entered, there was Janak Desai, in all his bell-bottomed and side-burned glory. 
  • After he left for the wedding, my mom told her sister she thought my dad was a fox.
  • My dad was all about the smoke show that was Bharati Contractor.
  • Both families went ballistic with excitement and checked each of their horoscopes to make sure the moon and stars were properly aligned for the match... or something, I'm not sure, but apparently everything checked out with their Virgo/Capricorn combo.
  • The next day, Sunday, the families got together over a meal and decided the wedding was on.
  • All week my dad took my mom to meet various friends and family members as his betrothed.
  • On Saturday the 26th, they married.
Yup, easy as pie. What struck me when my mom was recounting all of this was the complete lack of trepidation or doubt. "Weren't you scared?" I asked... several times. My thoughts were consumed with how she barely knew him, how she was going to move to an entirely different country with him, how during that week between the arrangement and ceremony, they hadn't even been alone together very much. Mummy just shrugged and said that because she knew his family so well (his brothers were buds with her brothers), she felt absolutely secure. My dad fulfilled her two husband requirements: he came from a good family and was well-educated.

"Actually, I was scared that Daddy wouldn't like my cooking... I knew how to make some things, but not like a whole meal." She expressed this to him and his response was, "It's okay, as long as it's edible and not kachu (undercooked), I'll like it." Well, good... they cleared up the heavy stuff. 

Coming To America
My mother arrived in America on May 23, 1974, after all the immigration paperwork went through. This was the part of her story I was most curious about. What were her expectations? How did it compare to what she imagined? Was my dad supportive during the transition? Consistent with how she describes the fast-track wedding hoopla, she dismissed all of my assumptions of difficulty with a simple, "It was okay!" 

My father had told her that life in America was very different, but that the experience would be absolutely priceless. "You will learn so much," he told her. When Mummy talks about those early days, she admits to being very hesitant to speak to Americans for fear they wouldn't understand her English. My dad would always encourage her. "You must try... if they don't understand you, what's the big deal?" Instead of speaking for her, my dad made sure Mummy used her own voice. To further build her confidence with English, she took night classes at my future high school. Beyond that, her English tutors were popular American television shows like Good Times, All in the Family, and even Sesame Street. Again, my assumption was that Mummy would talk about a huge transitional period where she cried all the time; how living with Daddy caused a lot of fighting; and how she longed for her family back in India. Nope... Mummy made it clear that she had been ready to start her life as a married woman, in any country, for a long time.  

"Speaking English was the only thing that scared you?" I asked. 

"Pretty much... that and the cold weather. Winter was hard." 

My mom mastered English... but she still hates winter.  

From Time-Pass to Career Success
I was very young when my mother attended cosmetology school and it occurred to me recently that I really had no idea how she chose that path. I figured there had to be a discussion with my father and, knowing him, he would have had a lot of opinions on the subject. Daddy was a liberal guy, but that didn't stop me from asking if he was okay with my mom working.   

"Were expectations discussed? Did you always know you'd work? What did Daddy think?" I asked.

She said Daddy was extremely supportive and that she always knew she wanted to work, but wasn't sure what to pursue. Since my father worked a job that required normal 9-5 hours, he was adamant that whatever job Mummy chose be something flexible or part-time. Both of them agreed that her job would be one to keep busy or "time-pass" as Indians say, but not interfere with the lives of us kids. 

My mother had an interest in hair styling and beauty since her time in India, where she had taken courses and earned a certificate. My father liked the idea of her pursuing this field because he said it would make her happy. "You may not make the most money, but you will come home happy." So in 1984, she enrolled at Mr. Bela's School of Cosmetology in Madison Heights, Michigan. The school even gave her credit for her previous courses in India, which shortened the duration of her training by several months. 

Going to cosmetology school was the first time Mummy had regular interaction with a variety of people. She recalls how there were people from all different backgrounds, which was as much an education to her as the hair and skincare courses. She impressed her instructors with how naturally she took to the skills, and they even asked to learn some of her Indian beauty techniques. Eyebrow threading blew their minds! A salon owner named Theresa was taking courses at the same time to earn a teaching certificate. She always noticed Mummy's work and kept an eye on her at the school. Before my mom even took the State Board Licensing Exam, Theresa offered her a job at her salon in Royal Oak. Daddy was very impressed that his wife had been recruited prior to graduation! 

Theresa's Touch of Class was where Bharati Desai's career began. Mummy speaks so fondly of Theresa and that experience. "I learned so much... not only about hair, but how to handle clients." A major downside and ultimately the reason she left was the heavy smoking in the salon. Hey, it was the 80s, your stylist could have a ciggie hanging off her lip while she applied perm solution to your mullet! Mummy was lured to a new salon in the upscale city of Birmingham... where there was a no-smoking policy. Unfortunately the owner was clueless and the place went under in about a year. Coming off of that disappointment, a friend of hers recommended JCPenney's Styling Salon. "They use the same skin care line which you got certified in, so you'd be going in with an advantage." My mom walked in and the manager said, "Toni sent you? I don't need to know anything else... when can you start?" And with that, my mom hit the jackpot with JCPenney and ended up working there for close to 25 years. And that is the only time you will ever read "jackpot" and "JCPenney" in the same sentence. 

Being the only Indian woman in the cosmetology field ended up being an accidental boon for my mother. With all of the Indian immigration to the Detroit area, Bharati Desai became the go-to stylist and esthetician for a large number of newly arriving ladies. Her talent combined with word of mouth also opened up a side business of bridal styling for Indian weddings. When she wasn't at the salon, she spent many Saturday mornings in a hotel suite beautifying Indian brides, from their hair and make-up to perfectly fitting their elaborate wedding sari. This niche market amassed an impressive client roster and my mother would be booked solid for months at a time. My father once joked, "I used to introduce Bharati as my wife, but now I'm just known as Bharati's husband!" 

Her career is where I see my mother's story as very unique and admirable. For a woman in the Indian community to pursue a career in a field that wasn't seen as lucrative was rare... and to be supported by her husband who saw the value of her emotional well-being over dollars in a bank account... even more rare. Mummy told me how it was common for a lot of wives like her to find entry level jobs at banks. Working at a bank was practical, sounded dignified and definitely paid well. So often, and especially in the Indian community, the optics of one's life can outweigh actual fulfillment. Oh, what will people think? Will this job be good for my image? I love that my mom knew herself enough to take a path of genuine interest versus practicality, and I further love that my dad supported her all the way. 

Widow's Peak
Immediately after my father died, Mummy's well-being was our #1 concern. How would she manage? Can she handle the grief? What will she do without him? Well, let me just say that she was the pillar of strength for all of us during that time. We had absolutely nothing to worry about. She grieved in her own way, which was to cry minimally, pray a lot and recognize that this was part of life. This isn't to suggest that she didn't go through tough periods, or that her grace faltered at times -  but as a whole I am in awe of how my mother has handled herself in the years after Daddy's death. She is truly enjoying her life, just as my dad would have wanted.

Years ago I had a conversation that sort of woke me up to the significance of Mummy's path. A woman I worked with had also lost her father, so we were discussing our mothers as widows one day at the office. I had mentioned how I was going to surprise my mom at JCPenney for her last day. After Daddy passed, we convinced Mummy to retire. She was more than ready to start the next phase of her life, and that phase wouldn't include punching a time clock. 

"It's so awesome that your mom has that career and accomplishment," my co-worker said, "My mom is so lost without my dad. Her entire identity was being his wife and, now that he's gone, she doesn't really know what she likes or who she is." 

Her comment knocked me into a perspective I had never really thought about. My mind sort of rewound and played back a sped up version of Mummy's life. I saw how her identity had taken shape and evolved with unexpected, and sometimes unfortunate, events along the way. What was supposed to be a job to "keep busy" while her kids were in school turned into a successful career that ended up providing for our family. As my father's career in finance stagnated and eventually ended with forced retirement, my mother's JCPenney Styling Salon job provided health insurance along with continuing income. Another benefit of working there was a 401K to which my mom contributed for close to 25 years. Thanks to that, she was able to purchase a brand new condo all on her own after she sold the house in Royal Oak. For a woman who was afraid to speak English when she first arrived in America, I think that's pretty badass.

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I've been a witness to my mother's life for the past 40 years, but it wasn't until the last decade that I really appreciated her on a deeper level. Things really came into clear focus after I had my kids. There are too many instances to list but, suffice it to say, I've been at peak vulnerability in a myriad of areas since becoming a mother, and Mummy has been there with me through all of it. Sometimes silently, sometimes with words of encouragement, and sometimes through mental reminders of all she has conquered. As I get older and go through experiences as a woman, a wife, and a parent, I find myself hungry for the stories of my mother. I want to understand as much as I can from her perspective because it helps inform so much about how I approach many situations. I regret missing out on these conversations with my father before he died... I'm not making that same mistake with Mummy.

Writing this post has opened my eyes to a stark parallel between our lives. Here I am pursuing an unorthodox path with comedy/acting, and she did the same with her career as a cosmetologist. I cannot believe I didn't see that before, but as we were discussing her past, I realized that she boldly took a path that wouldn't necessarily be received as impressive or respected by her community. But she didn't care. That's where our paths diverge a bit. If you noticed, I kept asking Mummy if she was "scared" at so many points during our conversation. And every time she quickly bobbed those shoulders up and said, "Not really." I've spent a lot of my life being scared, but after combing through the major life events that Mummy forged through with a positive attitude, I have a shining example to reference at those fearful times.

Bharati Desai's story isn't one of fame and fortune. It is a story of taking life as it comes and handling it with resilience. It is a story of selfless acts for friends and family. It is a story of finding hidden strength and unexpected independence. It is a story of hard work. It is a story of how expectations have to evolve in order to find peace. Most of all, it is a story of the power and presence of unconditional love. 

I love you, Mummy. xo