Hmm?

I’ve noticed that one of the most popular toys gifted to toddlers is the toy telephone. These are usually red, have a face, wheels, a dial with numbers, and make a cute little ringing sound as toddlers drag them around. Toddlers play with them incessantly, talking to imaginary people and dialling imaginary numbers.

So you see, we’re trained to speak on the telephone from the moment our impressionable minds can get our sweaty fists to clutch the receiver.

And of course (as is the norm with this blog) that’s where the problem starts.

If you start training a child to do something from the tender age of three, they’ll grow up to love it, or they’ll begin to despise it. From here itself, children are automatically drawn towards one of the two basic telephonic groups: the Mumblers or the Yappers. I will define these two groups using a simple example: Ask a Mumbler how his/ her day was, and they’ll reply, ‘Hmm.’ Ask a yapper the same question, and they’ll proceed to tell you every unwarranted detail about their life: starting from the moment their mother went into labour and ending with their predictions of what they plan on becoming in their next life.

It’s easy to recognize future Mumblers and Yappers. The toddlers who beg every visitor to pretend speak with them on the toy telephone will become yappers. The toddlers who use the toy telephone receiver to throw at/ hit other toddlers will become Mumblers (and possibly psychopaths, but that’s beside the point).

It’s very hard to have a conversation with a Mumbler. Any question you ask will be answered by an indecipherable ‘Hmm’. That could mean anything from: ‘It’s so much fun talking to you’ to ‘I’d rather be give myself Chinese burns than have this conversation’. The closest a Mumbler will come to actually talking is monosyllables: ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Oh’. Having spoken to many Mumblers so far, I’ve learnt to understand what they mean by their tone.
I’ve compiled a list of the Mumbler’s characteristic ‘hmm’s’ and their meanings:

Hmm? (low pitched): Really? That’s surprising…
Hmm? (high pitched): Yes, what do you want now?
Hmm (short, with a simultaneous release of air from the nostrils): That’s funny.
Hmmmmm (with a variation in pitch): Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking.
Hmmm (sighing simultaneously): I’m sick of talking to you; go fry yourself.

Mumblers do have entertainment value though. For a laugh, get two Mumblers to speak to each other on a telephone while on speakerphone. The conversation will go like this:
‘Hmm?’ ‘Hmmm…’ ‘Hmmm?’ ‘Hmm!’ ‘Hmmm (sigh)’.

On the other hand, speaking to Yappers can be deadly. If you’re not careful they might keep you so busy with their conversation that you’ll forget to eat, sleep and bathe. You’ll starve to death while your Yapper friend tells you about a new recipe they discovered on the internet. That would be too ironic for anyone to deliver a dignified eulogy.

Many of my mother’s friends are Yappers. Ordinarily, my mother is not a Yapper, but Yappers have a way of entrapping you in a web of words they so skilfully weave. Normally, I would leave her to her own devices, but sometimes I need her to do some important things, such as making me a sandwich. In such a case I can’t just tap her shoulder and ask her; that’s not enough to get her out of the web. I have to do an African voodoo dance and prance about hollering war cries until she notices that starvation is driving her child mad and gets up to make me my sandwich. The problem is that a Yapper is physically incapable of putting down the receiver. It’s glued to their palm permanently. For a Mumbler like me, talking to a Yapper is unbelievably difficult. Non-Mumblers can make some excuse to get off the telephone, but Mumblers cannot. The maximum they can do is emit an especially irritated, ‘Hmmmm!’ This does nothing to deter a Yapper. On the contrary they take this ‘Hmmmm’ to mean that you agree with what they are saying, and consequently are further encouraged to keep speaking. One way for a Mumbler to save himself/ herself is to just slam the phone down. The Yapper will then call back, but don’t pick up. The Yapper will call some other unsuspecting soul. The good thing about Yappers is that they can’t stay off the phone long enough to wonder why your call was disconnected. They simply move on.

If I had to choose one telephonic group I would choose the Mumblers, mainly because I am a Mumbler myself. Having said that, I will admit that Yappers have their advantages. What advantages? That’s simple. If there’s somebody you don’t like, just lock them in a room with a telephone with speed dial straight to a Yapper.

It’s the perfect crime.

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Sandwich-making is an art. Literally.

I cannot cook. Honestly, I can’t. The minute I enter the kitchen everything spontaneously bursts into flames. The vegetables wilt and the slices of bread start falling, butter side down. I walk through a kitchen and leave behind a scene of devastation. Everything edible simply transforms into something completely uneatable the moment I touch it.

In the kitchen, I’m a bit like the Incredible Hulk, plus King Midas (except everything I touch turns to rot). 

But what I can do is make a sandwich. I’m sufficiently skilled in picking up two slices of bread and stuffing something in between. And I don’t even accidentally cut myself with the knife when slicing the bread. Most of the time.

But who can’t make a sandwich? You might ask. Who could be so dim-witted as to be unable to stack three simple layers on top of one another?

I’ll tell you who: the employees at my favourite [bazinga implied] sandwich shop.

I’m a regular customer at a very popular sandwich shop franchise outlet just a few minutes from where I live, and I have never, ever been served a sandwich that I’ve been satisfied with. And note that my expectations of fast food restaurants aren’t high, especially if the fast food restaurant calls its employees ‘sandwich artists’. I’m not even joking.

It isn’t that my order is very complicated.  I don’t ask them for things like, ‘ciabatta bread with arugula, prosciutto and brie, garnished with a hint of basil and cat fur’. My order is pretty straightforward: Usually a Veggie Patty on oregano bread, without any jalapeno and mustard. Just four things to remember. But, for the goldfish-like memory of our ‘sandwich artists’ it’s four too many.

They place the frozen veggie patty in microwave to defrost. And by the time they’ve walked over to the oven to pick up the oregano bread, they’ve forgotten what type of bread I’ve asked for. They look towards me helplessly, and I know why. “Oregano!” I have to yell over the din made by other customers, also reminding their respective ‘sandwich artists’ of their order.

Once they return to the counter, they stare at the trays of vegetables for a few moments, and you can just see in their faces that they’re trying to work out which vegetable you had asked that they not include your sandwich. I watch them for a while, trying to see if this rigorous and visible mental labour will help them remember. Just for the record, it doesn’t. Finally they start constructing the sandwich. With the speed and care of a child pulling out a particularly precariously positioned Jenga block, they layer onions on tomatoes, tomatoes on cucumbers, cucumbers on lettuce. Exactly four of each. Then they reach the jalapenos. Their hands hover over the tray. They remember that the customer has asked for something to do with jalapenos, but what? Is it extra jalapenos? No jalapenos? Jalapeno sauce? Finally I say, decisively, “No. No jalapenos,” in a tone of voice that somehow makes one feel that this command should be followed by ‘bad doggie’. The artist nods like he knew your order very well indeed, and was, in fact, testing your memory.

Next he proceeds on to the sauces. By now I’ve become smarter and I say, “No mustard,” before he applies, or at least tries to apply, his mind again. He pours on the sauces carefully, places the patty on top and reaches the final (and the most challenging) stage: closing the submarine sandwich, i.e., trapping the aforementioned fillings between the two loaves of bread.

Now, even a three year old would know that one must be extremely delicate when closing a sandwich filled with sauces and veg, otherwise it’ll all fall out. But strangely, the ‘sandwich artists’ at this sandwich shop seem unaware of this. Either that or they take their title of ‘artist’ very seriously, because, when they shut the sandwich, all the veggies and sauces explode outward; spilling all over the counter and creating what looks like food-based modern art. But the artists pay no heed to this. They simply grab as much of the sandwich and sauce and vegetables as can fit in their clenched hand and stuff it in a plastic cover, for you to reassemble when you eat. No wonder this particular franchise advertises its food as ‘fresh’; of course it’s fresh – we practically have to make it ourselves.

Mind you, this is only one order for one person. When I have to order four different sandwiches with different sauces and vegetables for each one of my family members, it’s just hell. In such situations, we all know that we just aren’t going to get what we ordered. We’ve learnt to be thankful that at least we’ve been served sandwiches. They could have just as well messed up our order and given us salads. It wouldn’t be beyond them.

So, why are the people at my sandwich shop so dull? Why are they unable to handle orders a toddler could handle? I believe the problem lies in their job description. We all know that artists are (and this is a generalization), on average, moody, eccentric, forgetful and prone to cutting off their ears. So basically, they’re people who don’t think through things very much. And who’s to say ‘sandwich artists’ aren’t the same?