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Vedika was tired and angry, but mostly tired. Anger was exhausting. Her husband’s father was infuriating even in the best of times – he belonged firmly to a generation that seemed stubbornly incapable of thinking of women as equals and seemed to regard her dedication to her career as a character flaw. The deafening silence of his judgement for the fact that the apartment she shared with his son was not spotless made it difficult to hear anything else. The old man wasn’t overtly rude of course, but it was clear he believed his son would have been better to marry a nice girl from back home than this half-breed woman with an Indian name and green eyes. She did not want him in her home and she especially did not want him passing on his ideas about a woman’s place in the world to her son, Arvind.

For his part, the old man kept his counsel to himself. He hardly spoke to his son and even less to his daughter in law. Ajay, her husband, sat on the couch with a mound of papers fanned out on the coffee table in front of him. Medical records from India and America both, alongside a pile of insurance papers and another pile of brochures for assisted living facilities.

Pita, I know you value your independence and I don’t want to take that away from you, but after your fall last week we need to make sure you are someplace safe.

Pita had fallen on the steps up to his apartment and lain there for several hours until a young couple coming down had found him and helped him to his apartment. Vedika and Ajay had tried to get him a cell phone several times but he complained that the numbers were too small and refused to carry it or keep it charged. When his landlord had called to tell them about the fall, Ajay had panicked.

The old man was, well, getting old. He had worked hard his whole life and, while he had never managed to amass much money, had paid Ajay’s way through college without a lot of student debt. It had not been a gift – it was a contract, an obligation. Ajay had dreamed of being an artist and drawn constantly as a young man but when he had expressed interest in art college the old man had gone into a rage and burned his sketch books. He had not travelled to this strange land and worked and saved for so long so his son could be a starving artist! Ajay would be an engineer and that was the end of the discussion. There had been tears and words of rage but in the end the old man got his way. The two had hardly spoken since, it was only her husband’s sense of duty that made him insist on the old man moving in. Ajay and Vedika had fought bitterly, she did not want Pita in her home! But they could not afford to put him in one of those assisted care homes. In the end, tears or no, it was as simple as that: Pita could not live alone any longer and there was nowhere else for him to go.

The old man didn’t like it any more than she did, it was obvious. He had always been independent and didn’t see any reason why something as mundane as old age should keep him down. She almost admired him, in spite of herself. Meanwhile, the conversation was getting heated and both men were starting to get louder. She hushed them, it would not do to have the neighbors talking and Arvind was asleep in the next room for his after-school nap.

Pita gave her a look of disdain but lowered his voice and turned to his son: “Ajay, I raised you to be responsible and respect your elders – not bully them!”

I am not bullying anyone, but it is not safe to leave you alone at your age. You took care of me alone for years after mom died. Let me do my duty as a son and take care of you now.

Pita was silent, struggling with the fact that he knew his son was right but could not bear the thought of life as an invalid. The thought of giving up his independence to be a guest in someone else’s house, even his son’s, was unbearable; but there was no way out. He was trapped. His shoulders slumped.

All right son, you win. I will give notice on my apartment this month.

It’s not what I want, I’m not winning anything dad. I’m just trying to be a good son and take care of you.

Fine! What do you want from me? Do you want me to be grateful?

Ajay noted with shock that the old man’s eyes were filling with tears. He tried to embrace him but was rebuffed.

I will be alright, I am not some invalid that needs to be coddled. Just give me time.

Enough

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Jake sighed as he slumped against the steering wheel of his truck and moved back into the lane.  He had moved over to the side to let a motorcycle past because the truck filled the whole lane.  It had been years since he’d been on a bike, the girl who loved to ride on the back of his cruiser when they were dating had mysteriously morphed into a wife who made him sell his bike because she was worried he’d get killed riding it.  At least that meant she wanted him to make it home, right?  Things could be worse.  Some couples burned hot for a few years and then faded but they still lay in bed on Saturday mornings laughing and cuddling like newlyweds.  He smiled, thinking about her eyes looking up at him. Continue reading

Lucky

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The airstrike rattled the city, everything shook. Dust rattled down from the rafters and somewhere in the basement below an infant cried. Mo sat as still as he could amidst the crush of strangers and tried to focus on breathing. The air was thin, too many lungs sucking oxygen and not enough ventilation. The earth shook again beneath the roar of planes overhead, and the thunder of bombs; aggravating the ringing in his ears.

He had ended up here by sheer good luck, if you could call it that. The university had closed months ago because of the protests and never re-opened. When the military had opened fire on protests in the capital the shock waves went right across the country. Many of the students had joined militias, others fled. Mo headed for the border, he couldn’t muster enough faith to believe in a revolution and the fundamentalists were even worse than the soldiers. On foot it was a long journey and the war overtook him. Continue reading

Perfection

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The night was warm with the scent of rain and a few lonely stars visible through the clouds. I pulled my scarf up the back of my neck, flush against my helmet to take the edge off the wind. Ahead of me, the glow of my high beams threw the surrounding darkness into sharper relief and lit up the underbrush of the trees. Coming into the corner, I leaned forward low over the gas tank and let the bike slide gracefully into the curve as I hugged the edge of the mountain. Continue reading

Sometimes a girl has to buy her own flowers

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The flower was huge, pink, and spiny – like something from the surface of an alien world.  Jenna was enthralled.  Around her, the farmers market buzzed with people and activity, but she was long gone.   She pictured herself as the exiled queen of an ancient empire, cast adrift in space, her last loyal retainers around her as she worked to raise an army and reclaim her lost home world. The chief among them, Zarrow the mighty with his muscles ripling under his green skin in the red light of a dying sun, would carry it back from their last raid against the enemy to present to her, his queen, as a token of their forbidden love.

Jenna blushed to herself, a secret smile playing on the edge of her lips.

Suddenly, she was knocked aside, dreams scattered like sand in the surf, as her little brother Aaron barreled into her, hooting with delight.  He was playing tag and too busy running as fast as possible to bother looking where he was going.  Their mother, two stalls away, was trying her best to disavow all knowledge of the unruly herd and focus on picking out tomatoes from the big box.  As the mother of five she knew that the endless tribal warfare would never stop and had stopped trying years ago  As far as she was concerned, the kids were an autonomous nation of their own and as long as nobody needed to go to the emergency room, she just plain didn’t care.

Which was nice for her and all, but as the older sister Jenna felt the need to establish some order in the universe and so did her best to fill the void. In this case though, her chance had passed – Aaron had taken advantage of her temporary confusion to flee the scene of his crime and she didn’t feel like chasing him.  At 14 years old she was practically a woman and it was beneath her dignity.  More importantly, he was far enough away that she couldn’t easily catch him.  At least for now.

She turned back to the stall, looking for her flower and was surprised to see Adam (from her 4th period math class) at the till, buying flowers.  To her delight, she saw he’d picked out one of the big pink spiny ones and hoped for a moment he’d give it to her, dropping to one knee and proffering it with both hands and proclaiming his eternal devotion.  Instead, he stuck it in his bag, got on his bike and rode away; a gift for some other girl.  She tried not to feel disappointed, Adam wasn’t her type anyway.  He was nice to look at but not a lot going on upstairs.

She sighed and her shoulders slumped a bit before picking herself back up and saying under her breath “well Jenna, sometimes a girl has to buy her own flowers.  Might as well do it.”

She brought it home and put it in a vase by her bed, smelling its exotic perfume.   She dreamed.

A place with a view

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Molly ran down the dirt road, squealing with delight. She felt as though if she went any faster her body would break gravity’s hold and she’d be able to soar off into the sky.  She jumped and spread her arms wide imagining it, before landing knees bent and then springing forward again.

Look at me daddy, I’m flying!

Her father came walking behind, heavy backpack weighing him to earth as they slowly climbed the mountain.  Their previous camp spot downtown under the bridge had been a hell of a lot more convenient,  but the police had a habit of waking people they caught camping with a kick to the head and if one of those bastards hurt Molly, things would get very intense very fast.  He wasn’t going to let that happen.  So instead, it was up into the hills.  Less accessible, more places to camp, no cops, and clean fresh air.

Up ahead, Molly was perched on top of a boulder, looking out at the city below.  She had no concept of homelessness or unemployment and if her father had his way she never would.  And while she still cried sometimes at night because she missed her mother, this last summer had been one gigantic adventure and she was thrilled to have her daddy spending so much time with her.

Tom found himself walking the path, lost in thought.  When his wife had been diagnosed with cancer he thought his world was ending and things couldn’t get worse, at least until their health insurance refused to pay for her treatment and they’d had to take out a second mortgage to cover the bills.  He quickly used up all his time off and sick leave driving her to doctors appointments.  His work suffered, but even so, the layoff had taken him by surprise.   Unable to afford the treatment and with his credit cards maxed out, he’d taken Jeanine home; hardly leaving her side for those last weeks.  Molly didn’t understand what was going on and cried constantly, they all did.  A month after Jeanine died, he and Molly had moved in with a friend and put the house up for sale while he continued to look for work.  But the work hadn’t come and there’s a limit to the generosity of even a good friend.

Look at the city daddy!  It’s beautiful!

It’s hard to stay depressed around a five year old, especially one as precocious as Molly.  Tom pulled himself together and bent down to look along her outstretched arm at the city below.

Well, I promised you a place with a view didn’t I?  Only the best for my little girl.

He hugged her like he’d never let her go, his whole world wrapped up tight in his arms.  They watched the sun set over the trees.

Freedom

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The afternoon was cold and foggy – a typical summer day in San Francisco – and Gary was glad he’d grabbed his heavy jacket on the way out the door.  Traffic was a mess, as usual, and he shivered a bit as he carefully wound his way between the lanes of traffic.  Lane splitting downtown struck him as having more than a passing similarity with riding a motorcycle through a mine field, except the mines moved unpredictably and would occasionally vent their frustration by trying to swerve into him to block his progress.

On the one hand, he felt like he should be shocked and dismayed that people would attempt to murder a complete stranger because they perceived him as “cutting in line” even though lane splitting was perfectly legal.  On the other hand, Gary’s opinion of humanity as a whole was low enough that he couldn’t work up anything approaching genuine surprise.  Sure, he thought, most people are decent enough most of the time if they can connect with another human one to one.  But the moment they stop thinking of you as a person and start thinking of you as a “car” or “motorcycle” or “internet comment” the claws and fangs come out and we’re right back in the jungle.  We may claim to value kindness and empathy, but most people just want to get theirs most of the time.

He squeezed his brake to slow down abruptly and avoid crashing into the idiot talking on the phone while making a left turn into oncoming traffic, and let out a sustained blast on his horn as he wove around them and up onto the on-ramp towards the bridge.

To ride a motorcycle well requires being aware of not only ones self, but of everyone around you – the teenager having a screaming argument with her boyfriend on her cell phone and moving erratically.  The trucker who is bigger than anything else on the road and lets his size compensate for the fact that he’s been up for 20 hours straight and is driving like crap.  The middle aged man texting with his mistress while he steers his luxury sedan with his knees, lost in a fantasy that doesn’t involve a grouchy wife and 3 mouthy kids who stubbornly refuse to shut up and do what they’re told.  Bubba in his lifted oversize pickup who might ride dirtbikes on the weekend and let you by with a wave and a smile… or might take out his frustration with his dead end job by casually swerving in front of you.

The whole thing was just ever so slightly terrifying. And since fear can help keep one alert, he figured that was a good thing. Still, if there was an undercurrent of fear the dominant emotion was unbridled joy and exhileration.

As he wove through traffic, Gary couldn’t help smiling as the stress of the day fell away. The rush of acceleration, the subtle dance as he scanned for hazards and deftly avoided them, and – most of all – the knowledge that she was waiting for him at the other end of the ride.

The Peter Principle

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There are managers who you like and even learn from, people who make you feel motivated and excited to be part of a team and who lead by example instead of relying on threats and bribes.  And then there are managers like Roy.  He’s not a bad guy and was a decent engineer, but some people should never be promoted to management!

Robin was trying very hard to be diplomatic and failing miserably.  Roy had been a great programmer and when their boss had retired everyone assumed Roy would be the obvious guy to take over as Team lead, but his skill as an engineer had completely failed to translate into skill leading a group of engineers and he was floundering.  Everyone knew it, including Roy, and his panic at suddenly being bad at his job had made him defensive, which of course only made things worse.

She wasn’t trying to be critical, but things were quickly turning toxic and she wasn’t thrilled to have to contemplate looking for a new job.

Have you ever heard of the Peter Principle?

Jeanine had briefly studied organizational theory before dropping out of her grad program when she had her first child.  Having a career and building a human was all the stress she could handle.  She’d been talking about going back for most of the decade since.  In the meantime, she kept up with the field as best she could by reading on her own and finding excuses to talk over the ideas with friends.

Ok, so basically this guy Lawrence Peter argued that in most human organizations people get promoted based on their competence at the job they were doing previously, not based on how they’d perform in the job they’re getting promoted into.  Which means that over time, everyone who climbs the ladder will eventually get promoted to their position of incompetence where their inability to perform prevents them from advancing further and every large organization that doesn’t actively take steps to prevent it will end up being run by incompetent people.  It’s a side effect of the fact that our brains haven’t adjusted to moving out of a hunter gatherer society where it made sense to have the best hunter lead the hunt.

“So what you’re saying is it’s not Roy’s fault that he sucks at his job and I should just blame biology?”  Robin was obviously skeptical and her laugh dripped with sarcasm.  “Roy doesn’t need my pity, what he needs is a crash course in basic management skills.”

Robin stopped to take a sip of her beer.  It had been a long week and even without an incompetent and defensive manager she’d have been tired.  Her relief at it finally being Friday night was palpable and, as much as she enjoyed spending time with Jeanine, what she really wanted more than anything was to curl up in a comfy chair and read a book.  She started to make an excuse and stood up without looking behind her, and bumped into a couple guys who were walking past.  Robin apologized reflexively as she turned around and was surprised to find herself looking up into a face she recognized.  It took a second to click and then

John!

He laughed at her surprise and she tried not to let the way the crinkles around his smile made her feel register on her face.  They had talked a bit on skype after that first initial meeting, mostly work stuff but occasionally veering off into personal lives, music, sports.  All the standard  small talk.  She thought he’d wanted to ask her out but he never seemed to work up the courage so bumping into him here was as unexpected at it was pleasant.  He’d come out to Oakland from the city to meet a friend, Charles, who he promptly introduced.

Sorry, it looked like you were about to leave,  I didn’t mean to bump into you I should have been watching more carefully…

Oh no!  Nothing to apologize for, I walked into you.  Actually I was just going to get up and get another round.  Want to join us?

The two men looked at each other and it was Charles who spoke first.  “Actually, that would be just about perfect.”  Jeanine quickly chimed in “Well I’m glad that’s settled then!  You two go get us a pitcher” as she playfully shooed them away and motioned Charles to come sit by her.

John pushed through the crowd, Robin following after him, trying her best to not to make the fact that she was staring at his butt overly obvious.  She failed.  He didn’t mind.  It was a good night.

It’s a start

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Getting older is one of the few inevitable’s in life., and yet it’s a constant source of surprise.   I still can’t quite wrap my head around how fast the years since have gone.  9 years in a failed marriage, a house that my ex kept, a pile of songs no one sings on albums no one listens too.  And now even my career is falling apart.  I’ve failed at literally everything I’ve ever cared about.

Grant took another sip of his beer and stared straight down at the table, blank faced.  He was in one of his depressive moods and thought he was being philosophical and honest but as far as the rest of the world was concerned he was just wallowing in self-pity.  Jared looked across the table at his friend and raised his eyebrow.

Snap out of it man.  There’s a difference between failing and not having succeeded yet.  Everyone who knows you respects you – you have courage and integrity and you’re smart.  No one else would have walked into Mark (their CEO)’s office after a major product launch and told him the direction he was taking the company was wrong and would bankrupt us.  And I can’t think of anyone else who could have convinced him he was right.  That takes guts.  You should be proud of yourself, not crying into your beer. Continue reading

For God and Country

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The sound of artillery was thunder, earthquakes, and every bad dream he had ever had as a child rolled into one.  A sound more felt than heard, it made his bones ache as the vibrations poured through him.  He had never particularly wanted to be a soldier, but when you are a young man with no prospects in a nation at war it’s hard to avoid the front lines. Continue reading