Monday, August 06, 2018

Old Self

My friend S who I reconnected with after a hiatus as long as J's age, is that childhood friend who is our personal wayback machine. Each time we talk, I return to a different time and the person she once knew me to be. Those conversations make me think if the long pause in our connection contributed to this timeless feeling of our friendship.

If we grew old together without the benefit of time and space to allow us each room of our own, would it still feel this way ? It so happened, that just three months after reconnecting with her online, I had opportunity to meet her in person. The weekend together was like being in college once again. There was no political correctness or trying to play any roles. We were as natural and unadorned as we had been then in the narrow confines of our college campus and the small town adjoining it.

The realities of our life were stark then - where would we find work after college if at all, would we graduate on time, would it be best to inform the parents of our depressed friend that she needed help or should we let her ride it out, should we borrow money from the nasty rich kid next door or wait for next month's allowance to show up, would we fail the Chem finals, would our psychotic roommate spiral out of control if she failed the Chem finals, would we get a chance to go abroad for graduate studies, would the professor whose recommendation was most valuable remember we slept though his entire first semester class,  did he know his nickname was Ms Toad and would that impact his desire to endorse us for grad school, would our parents lean on us to get married, would the boy we secretly liked ever like us back, did the said boy prefer our psychotic roommate to us

All of those questions have been answered a long time ago and we are where we are with less than half of our lives left to live. We talked of legacy beyond living for oneself or a select few others. S gave me gifts of costume jewelry and when I wore them I felt like a different person - one that I have not been in touch with in decades. It was strangely energizing to return briefly to my old self, connect with associations from the time of youth and naivety. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Keys

Of the Florida Keys, Hemingway said ""It's as if an imagination is intermingling salt water with desert, sea with plain, creatures of the deep with creatures of the bush." My first visit here was in late '99 if memory serves. The conditions of my life were very different than from today. I recall vividly that feeling of exuberance driving into the ocean through a corridor of tropical green some blooming with bright flowers. The sand and the water always with reach. If we had to stop at every spot that looked inviting we would be on the road for weeks. 

Yet, we did make many stops and I collected shells and pieces of driftwood as I always do when by the ocean. I loved that trip and have the fondest recollections of it but it was as if I had been there alone. The years that followed blotted out all memories of my traveling companion - the man who would be the father of J. Life partnership I would discover can be a mirage. You chase what you believe may be perfect only to end up in an aching void. 

This summer I was at the Keys once again. The place has changed beyond belief. There is hardly anywhere along the stretch from Miami to Key West where the road tempted me to stop; enjoy nature in solitude. Commercialization has turned the endless miles of green on US-1 into a patchwork of beach residences interrupted by nature. Fortunately the ocean is still the emerald green as I remembered and magic of the Keys remains intact inside the beautiful national parks in the area where we spent a lot of time. This trip was about nostalgia for the Keys that I once saw close to twenty years ago. The one that flashes back in vivid color every time I hear The Beach Boys sing Kokomo

That magic is mostly lost but this is a place so overabundant in natural beauty that it is impossible not to love even what remains today. This summer I saw the Keys through new eyes - mine and those with whom I traveled. I will remember this trip very differently than the first one. Instead of gaps in memory where loved ones should have been, this time reminiscences will remain whole.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Fox And Rabbit

For the first time ever, I saw a small fox in my back yard one night last week. My yard has been home to rabbits for years. At first they were skittish around me but not anymore. The unexpected fox sighting made me wonder if any of the rabbits had been made a meal of. It was a sad thought. For several days since, I did not see any rabbits in the yard and that only confirmed my fears. Maybe they no longer felt safe here and had moved elsewhere. This afternoon one of the rabbits was back in the yard and from what I could tell it was business as usual. There was no signs of distress or discomfort. This probable and imagined encounter between a fox and the rabbit brought to mind the Longfellow quote "Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence." We fear unpleasant encounters with what takes up disproportionate space in our lives but brings little reward or value. Yet the dreaded moment passes, the stressor and the stressed return to their original positions, life goes on. Such may have been the case with the rabbit who likely lives in mortal fear of the fox. The two may or may not have met each other that night. I was there to see them both, the hunter and the hunted - just as those who stand witness to the real and imagined calamities of our lives.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Vignettes Of Change

Recently, I have been reading some reminiscent books written by former Obama staffers. Those years were fascinating for me given where I come from. From the outside looking it, it appeared like change that come about before its time. There were consequences as the years following showed. In a way the experience paralleled India coming into independence in 1947 a secular country with its constitution written under the leadership of a Dalit Buddhist, Dr. Ambedkar. The out-sized dreams for India ended up being very far from attainable. In a sense the overzealous push to get India caught up to the rest of the free world after hundreds of years of foreign servitude, set us back a hundred years more. There is a time and pace for change and neither can be forced upon a people or a country.

2008 was the beginning of J's interest in American politics which runs strong to this day. I was sucked into the excitement of the times by my then seven year old. She was a believer back then as it seems some of these authors were. David Litt in his book My Hopey Changey White House Years was hard to like. The author seemed to be processing internal conflict by writing this book. As of its writing, he had not determined what those years meant for him. While being part of the creative process is interesting sometimes, such was not the case here. Litt sought to view things as a net positive but there was some strange mix of hero worship, self-deprecation, confusion about life overall that made it a hard sell to the reader. It was difficult to stay with the book and see it through even though Litt is a very talented writer.

The next one of this genre I tried to read was Who Thought This Was a Good Idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco. A very different tone and style from a mid-career professional not swooning over hope and dream. Mastromonaco does not come across a fan-girl but more a woman with big career goals and the grit required to achieve them. However, the long form description of her tampon travails in the opening chapter set the tone for her book. It was imagery that stuck and not in the most helpful way for her cause whatever that may have been. She did clarify that being known as the one who brought tampon dispensers to the woman's restroom in her place of work is not how she wanted to remembered by posterity. So a reader may assume her book was meant to serve some other cause.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Orchids and Hydrangeas

Two of my closest friends go back to high school and college. Over the years, there were pauses in our communication that ran months and years. Yet every time we reconnected it was like picking up where we left off without missing a beat. No matter what happened in our lives during the hiatus, nothing changed our friendship. We each live in a different country and have not met in decades. The unconditional and unchanging friendship of these two wonderful people I have been so fortunate to know is unlike the rest of the "friendships" in my life. 

There were ebbs and tides, people were in frequent touch at times and then not at all, I made efforts to revive near-dead relationships that seem to run out of air the moment I stopped trying. Life frequently gets in the way - marriage, divorce, kids, death, employment and illness take their toll. Many have dropped off completely and I have to struggle to remember names that were once important to me. I have wondered if people stop being able to forge friendships of a lifetime after college and if my experience is not so unique after all. Maybe there is something to be said for the cauldron that forms the dorm experience - living in tight quarters, over-sharing, new freedom, youth, naivete, dreams yet unbroken that allows abiding friendships to form. High school was similar in most ways minus the 24/7 collocation. 

Not since those times does one have the luxury of waiting several months to initiate conversation with a person that seemed interesting. Six months later, you are still in the same classes and have the same routine - it is not too late. This slow and gentle process of getting to know another person seems to impact the long term outcomes. There is no rush to do things, deliver on expectations or otherwise step out of your comfort zone. The friendship grows organically, feeding off of what is naturally available in the environment. If you then part ways and still want to stay in touch, chances are that the relationship will continue to thrive even as people and conditions evolve. There seems to be a natural adaptation in the friendship of youth to allow this. Those of independent and adult life  have never had any of these resilient qualities in my experience.

It is the difference between nurturing a hydrangea (which blooms each summer in my yard with no effort on my part) and trying to keep an orchid alive in its pot (I managed to keep one around for close to two years and that was as much work as it was a miracle). The more I have run into the fancy orchids in my later years, the more I value my never failing to bloom hydrangea of early youth.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Why Alexa

I have tried long and hard to understand what human need Alexa fills other than our right to be stupid and lazy. To the vast majority of us Alexa is not making the difference between life and death every day - that is the only scenario in which the value proposition makes sense. Alexa Fails are routinely treated as funny even though the implications are anything but. 

I am a Mary Meeker groupie and wait all year like the rest of them to hear her Internet Trends Report. This year, I paid close attention to her take on Voice which culminates in this gem of a slide headlined: Product Finding (Amazon) = Started @ Search...Fulfilled by Amazon. Alexa exists because the human desire for lazy and stupid is so boundless. 

Nirvana will be delivered unto us when I can bark at Alexa in my native language to have that box of Tide be dropped off by drone on my front porch. I am such a hot mess Monday morning because I previously binge watched Netflix all weekend, forgot all my chores and am now out of time to make a grocery run. In the afternoon, while at work I may recall being out of cleaning supplies and the need to tidy up the house before guests come to dinner. So I have Amazon deliver what I need right to the trunk of my car and even have them walk groceries into my house while I am out. If Alexa is any good, she needs to start calling out the time if she knows Netflix has been playing 24 hours straight, check what is in my fridge and order refills. She should have known I am out of Tide - needs to interface better with my smart and connected devices all around my home. I can't be held responsible for taking charge of my life, just need to wait on Amazon's feature release schedule for Alexa.

While Amazon tries to solve these self inflicted problems of my lazy, disorganized and stupid self, those who have the ability to plan ahead don't fare so well. Prime is not nearly what it used to be. Almost everything takes much longer than a couple of days to be delivered and schedule slippage is rife. The seller market place is completely chaotic with each making their own rules of engagement. Since my first purchase from Amazon back when it was still a bookstore until a few years ago, I never had need to call customer service. I assumed their operation was so flawless they never had the need for customer service staff. That has all changed now. 

In the future there may not be room in a society that goes out of its way to cater to the lazy and stupid, for those of us who want to exercise common sense now and then.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Driving Blues

Seven-seater minivans exist for a reason. And not because people who buy them are in love with their aesthetics. Kids need to be ferried between school and activities; parents must pool their collective resources of available time so they can also work. So there is kiddie car-pool and the ugly van that makes it possible. I have never owned one of these myself but they speak to me in a visceral way. Many things exist in life because they serve a need and not because they are glorious and wonderful.


The idea of this van can be extended to every part of life. Half way through, you are forced to think if you will spend the rest of it allowing function win over form. I am in that place lately and not a day passes when don’t ask myself what happens in the next phase. There is no marker of half-life more brutal than seeing your kid get drive off in their car for the first time.  It rips the figurative umbilical chord with great finality. This was my experience as a mother and from speaking with others not uncommon at all.
At first, I tried to delay my kid’s driver’s education program even as I struggled every day to manage her crazy schedule alongside mine. I told myself she was too young and it was not quite safe yet. She had to lean on me pretty hard to get her learner’s permit. We started her first driving lessons in empty parking lots and quiet suburban neighborhoods. Memories of her baby life came flooding back. She was one of those toddlers that skip the crawling phase and try to stand up. While still wobbly on her feet, she wanted to walk and run. Despite the many tumbles she took, she would not quit trying to run without having learned to walk. We got her a walker and she was spinning like a top in any open space she could find. There was no way to keep her in one place once she had discovered the joys of mobility.
It was not long before she grew tired of the parking lots and neighborhoods and wanted to be out on the open road. Our first long drive was down a long and windy country road and her exhilaration took me back to those long ago walker days. In time she came free of that walker and so also she came free of a learner’s permit. A month ago she became a licensed driver. This is where the parallels ended abruptly. My one year old baby was mine to hold, care, love and play with. She was not her own person, she needed me all the time. I got a hero’s welcome when I returned from work every day. She followed me around the house as I did my chores – I was the center of her universe. The transition from those days into her teen-age years was a gradual process with both of us adjusting to change every day. She gained confidence and freedom to be her own person and I experienced the relief of not having to mind a baby all the time.
And then there was that evening when she drove out with the car alone for the first time. This event seemed to mark the start of the second half of my life – maybe so acutely because she is my only child. I experienced physical pain and could not quite celebrate that big moment with her. I did not sleep that night thinking about her driving to school ten miles away next morning. In the days that followed, I overcame irrational anxiety but it was replaced by a void where my purpose as a mother used to be. She is sixteen now and for years she has been a fairly independent kid. Driving her around as hard as it had been on my work schedule, was also the last vestige of “tangible” purpose I had left. I know that is not true even as I write this; that my real purpose as mother has and will be to be solidly on her side in good times and bad. Being master of her own destiny as driving allows her to be, has triggered a tremendous mental growth spurt. Overnight, my kid went from being a child to an aspiring adult.There could be no better preparation for my impending empty-nest than watching her evolve every day at a pace I have never seen before.
The seven-seater minivans are a monstrosity in shape and size. They are that way because they represent the oversize and often irksome nature of tangible purpose in a parent’s life. Kids don’t think back fondly of all those times their parents juggled twenty balls in the air to make sure they made it to their activities, play-dates and birthday parties on time. Instead they may recall the mundane afternoon you had a meaningful conversation while they helped you clean dishes or the night before their big exam when they came to your room well past midnight for a hug and reassurance. Once the ugly car-pool van becomes redundant in a mother’s life, the challenge is to recount all of those moments you were there for your kid; make sure the tally is high enough serve as a purpose you could be proud of. It is a work in progress for me.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Two Sides

I finally got around to reading When Breath Becomes Air. The writing is as amazing as the journey through the author's mind while he grapples with his mortality. The epilogue of the book written by the wife of the deceased author offered the most remarkable contrast in perspective to his own narrative. Comparing the two versions of the events was like first watching a soundless movie in black and white and then seeing the final scenes replayed in full color and with sound. Kalanithi was obsessed with the question of his life's purpose and being able to make the most of the somewhat undefined amount of time he had left. While that preoccupation resulted in this unforgettable book, the flow of life and love around him seemed to remain a distant force that only touched him at tangent.

In the early part of the book the author mentions difficulties in the marriage. Learning about his condition forces a resolution that did not follow the "normal course of life" path that is typical for such things. The remarkable differences between the atmosphere of events described by the author and his wife brought to mind Kurosawa's Rashomon. While the conditions facing this couple's marriage were extremely sad and dire, the many versions of truth in a marriage is an universal theme. In a good marriage these variations and contradictions confluence to create a foundation vibrant and strong. But the same lack of coherence can destroy it all when the marriage is less than ideal. It was an unsettling feeling to not understand the truth about this particular marriage where both sides had bared so much of their souls and had communicated their truths so eloquently.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Waiting

Yet another work-out time movie. This time Waiting. I first saw Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw. She was great there and here in very different roles. It was interesting to read about her background and that of Mikey McClearly who producted this catchy tune for the movie.  Both made me think of cultural assimilation  and what it may have meant for Koechlin a "white-skinned woman growing up in Tamil Nadu", who had to defend her "Indian-ness" at numerous occasions. McCleary has a very interesting background that almost makes this piece of music possible. I always wanted to believe that India takes a big tent approach towards religious inclusion. Everyone has a spot in the Hindu pantheon and if they are lacking one, it is not too hard to make room. The news of Hindu nationalism and the politics of fear I read lately makes we wonder if I am being too naive. My distance from the everyday realities of present day India make it impossible to separate fact from spin. The experience of "outsiders" in their adoptive country can be very asymmetrical. The way Koechlin or McClearly have experienced India is hardly representative of those who feel ill-served and discriminated against everyday. While both experiences are real and valid, it was heart-warming to read about outsiders who feel at home in my country of birth. Thinking about India fills me with nostalgia for things that no longer exist and yet I am not able to feel at home there anymore. 

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Being a Chill Mom

..being “chill” while a mum is not a goal for the faint of heart. Despite all your efforts, you will make your kids cringe periodically and there will be loud arguments over your “infractions”. They will hold grudges for longer than you like. There will also be those lucky days when your kid is actually proud of you and brags about how cool you are to their envious friends. Read my guest post at Motherhood The Real Deal

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Parenting Plan

Reading Made to Stick : Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die and really enjoying it. Early on in the book I read a line that really stood out for for "No sales plan survives contact with the customer. No lesson plans survives contact with teenagers" That mirrors my experience at work and at home. Parenting is not a lesson plan but you do incorporate ideas about raising kids that you have seen working with others or even borrowed from them. As you gain experience, you begin to have original ideas. I learn a lot from other parents my age and older, specially those who have raised more than one child and found lessons from round one fail in the next ones. Yet the are able to consolidate the gains from their experience to be more effective parents over time. There are no "similar" kids. They may appear to share common traits and even exhibit similar behavior but that is no reason to assume what worked for one will for the other. A parent's job is to improvise on the fly while working within a framework. Go too far off-script and the kid will be confused even if there are temporary gains. Stay too inflexible and you will not solve the problem at hand. Learn and relearn the kid every day so your methods remain relevant. All of the  same is astonishingly true for customers as well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Empty Nest Onset

First time I was physically apart from J for more than an hour was when she was about seven months old. The memory of the physical pain it brought on is still bright. I experienced a version of it yesterday as I watched her drive out of the house for the first time. A driving license is a grand rite of passage and now it has happened for her. My friends had warned me about how it would feel and the mixed emotions this event would bring. And yet I was very far from being ready. The umbilical cord tugs just as strong as it did so many years ago. I was the one that had to leave back then and now it is her turn.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Working Out Movie

The best way to keep up with what is trending on Netflix is to combine it with my workout. Recently, I watched Secret Superstar this way over a couple of days. There is much to like about the movie for a variety of reasons not to mention the one song that stuck like an earworm for days. To my desi self raised on a mix of Hindustani and Western classical music with a fair share of songs from old Bengali and Hindi movies thrown in, this tune was about musical umami. There was a little bit of everything I am familiar with in perfect balance. It carried me to a slower pace, an older time closer to the India I was familiar with it.

But most unfortunately, there were some triggers there too. The abusive father of the main character; his reign of terror in the house brought back memories I would much rather forget. It made me wonder if our domestic help I knew from age ten to the time I left India was still alive, if at some point she stopped being beaten and bruised all over by her delinquent husband, if her kids had finally rescued her from the hell I had seen her live in for years; if I would ever see her again.

M was like a second mother to me, a different kind of mother than my own but not less important. I remember in my teens, talking to her about how she could escape and become free. And how there were only dead-ends in her life - with illiteracy, six children that could not do without her and the endless grind of poverty. Unlike the movie where we are given a happy ending, none of my ill-conceived plans had a chance to deliver M.

There is a terrible sense of hopelessness that goes with being a woman who has choice as I did, to be a bystander in the life of another who has none. There is this thick, impenetrable glass wall that separates you both. You have the unique misery of  watching the pain everyday and no ability to make it go away. The facts of her life could not be altered, there was no way to swoop in and rescue her. So you talk about remedies that don't and can't work for her. Learn to live with the guilt and shame of not doing your part, not using your privilege to help those who need it most. Makes you wonder if you even deserve it.

I know she loved me dearly and was my most unabashed fan. I remember the pride in her voice when she spoke of me to just about anyone; the times she gave me a bit of what she cooked for her family on Diwali and Pongal. Those may have well been the best meals of my life. When I think of M, I see her big smile and boundless energy. There was an inner spark in her that nothing could dim. Watching the movie made me think about her influence on me and how she shaped my womanhood subconsciously. 

I hope I have lived my life in a way that would still make her as proud as my silly accomplishments as a kid once did.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Lo and Behold

Watched Lo and Behold today and there was a lot to ponder about. It's hard to go a week without reading something about AI taking us over much like in episodes of Black Mirror. This documentary traverses the path from the beginning of the internet in UCLA in 1969 to the present with a variety of experts weighing in on what the future holds.

I found this simple explanation Elon Musk provided in the movie very helpful in clarifying where the problem with AI lies

“I think that the biggest risk is not that the AI will develop a will of its own but rather that it will follow the will of people that establish its utility function.” 

He goes on to illustrate his point with an example

“If it is not well thought out—even if its intent is benign—it could have quite a bad outcome. If you were a hedge fund or private equity fund and you said, ‘Well, all I want my AI to do is maximize the value of my portfolio,’ then the AI could decide, well, the best way to do that is to short consumer stocks, go long defense stocks, and start a war.”

The most beautiful and memorable part of the movie was the segment where Ted Nelson was speaking of his epiphany at age five that formed the basis of his life's work. 

Nelson's use of language as he describes this event makes the best case for technology related disciplines benefiting tremendously from a strong humanities background. I could not help wanting to show this video to anyone student of humanities who ever said they are not good with math and science.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Proverbial Canary

There won't be a Toys R Us because millennials are not having babies. I personally know of several members of that generation who are choosing not to take off as adults. At my place of work we did a millennial trend study that confirmed much of what we casually observe of this generation. They either live with their parents or share a place with an assortment of roommates because those are cheaper options. Neither is conducive to family building or long term relationships. The partners come and go along with the changing patchwork of gigs that form their income stream. There is no desire to own anything of substantial value and to that end not much desire for professional stability or advancement. 

If there are only three bills to pay each month and that too shared with five other people there is really no need to work too hard. If this becomes the pre-dominant lifestyle of choice for young people going forward, the implications extend well beyond toy stores. The desire to own tangible, material things coupled with that to form a family made the whole job driven economy possible. If both those needs are gone, people have very little to lose and a great deal of flexibility. There are obviously great positives in being free to take risk and afford change. But there are serious downsides. One gig can replace the other, roommates can be swapped, romantic interests can stay short and varied as nothing needs to happen next. 

The only limiting factor today is that the available jobs are mostly created by older generations and to that extent they have some control over this very nebulous millennial workforce and the nature of economic output created. In a few years, it will become their turn to define what work should be and how it should be performed. In this list of top twenty companies started by millennials there is not a single core engineering or medical research business for example. The entire focus of these enterprises is gathering and sharing content, goods or services. None address any real human need. The world would not miss even a single one of these companies if they ceased to exist today. But if electricity had not been invented, the car and airplane not been built in its time, we would have been a very different civilization and planet than we are today. The news of millennials in engineering and manufacturing is nowhere close to the headlines and that is reason for concern. 

It seems that we should mourn for a lot more than the demise of Toys R Us.