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


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. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Unrelated Rage

A childhood friend of J's wrote an essay in the local news paper about why he was walking out of school today. I have known of this kid for many years though we never met. Reading his essay made me cry. The pain felt raw and real in his words; he was able to inflict it upon the reader. While being in awe of this young person for being such a powerful writer, I was ashamed to be among the millions of adults who have failed our collective kids. He had not minced words in calling us out. 

How do I now deal with this toxic mix of grief, rage and shame that hits me every time I read something about this topic ? I don't discuss with other parents who for their part don't bring it up either. We find our safe space in such forced amnesia by implied consent. Today at school as tributes were read for the victims, our kids cried. Yet, we go about our days like nothing changed. We discuss plans for summer, their driver's license test, how they were grounded for staying out past curfew, the big soccer game coming up, the impending empty nest, how braces cost an arm and leg and their smile is still crooked. 

We cling to every shred of "normal" like so many talismans to keep our kids out of harm's way. We hope they will live to have families, careers and the American Dream. We try not to dwell upon the tragedy and find ways to move on. We pretend this is the best most positive way and there is no value in dwelling on past that cannot be changed. Mostly we feel powerless. Those parents and families had many dreams too. Tragedy is now an inedible stain in their lives they will never be able to wash away.

In Marie Kondo's book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she talks about how people in times of extreme stress try to subconsciously fix what is wrong at the root by frantically cleaning and de-cluttering. I must have been doing just that later in the afternoon unable to process the difficult emotions I experienced reading that essay. I decided to vacuum the second floor to calm down. It was a bad idea because I happen to own one of these cruel jokes of a machine. It exists in my house only to taunt my spectacular lack of mechanical ability.

Once I take it apart, I cannot for the life of me put it back together. So if I need to remove the dust from the bag-less innards of this torture device after the second room, I am screwed. Who are these people that are giving this thing a 4 star rating ? Am I the world's greatest retard that can't put this thing back together but everyone else can ?  I am filled with self-doubt and rage that rise in huge alternating waves as I try in vain to finish the job that I started. Did they have even a single woman on the design team when they build this household appliance ? I am cussing like a sailor at the machine and J is doing her best to ignore me. She knows of my bad relationship with this vacuum cleaner over the years and that its best to stay away. In the past, her attempts to help me assemble it did not end well for either of us. It assumed symbolic importance for unresolved and unrelated disputes we may have had at the time.

I will resume this task another day when I have less need to transfer rage from one hopeless place to another. 

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Second Chance

We will call him A. He turns thirteen in a few weeks and came into my life some five years ago. The first meeting is etched in memory. In my mind it is age he will forever be. A was a child then and young man taller than me already. Much has changed in both our lives this half decade I have known him. There was room in my heart for a second child but as I grew older and the dreams of a motherhood encore started to fade, that room turned cold and unwilling to receive love. Then I met A. Something about him made me want to rewind the clock. Try being a mother to another child and not repeat the mistakes I made and continue to make with J. 

The two kids have a lot in common but A is his own man too. He brings challenges I never experienced before and new rewards to make up for it. He forces me to be a better version of myself and I want to believe the improvements that follow help J out too. A makes me keenly aware of the value of time in a child's life. I was lucky to have met him when I did, at a time he was eager to talk about everything and only needed a willing listener. 

As his teen years draw near, the bar is much higher as I have learned from J. It is no longer enough to be an interested listener, he expects more and it is not always apparent what more is. There was the luxury of time to bring change you desired to see in the kid back then but not anymore. The years seem to fly by a lot faster beginning thirteen and influencing their inner worlds gets much harder. A is my chance to relive that phase of J's life maybe with more grace and wisdom this time around. He is also my chance to use the hard lessons of motherhood I have learned thus far and help another child.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A Summer Wedding

A few weeks ago, I received news that my niece is getting married this summer. When I saw her last she was younger than my daughter is now. The idea of her being old enough to be married filled me with maternal feelings of love and loss such life events bring. The years and distance had turned this child into a woman I did not know at all. In the nights following, there were many restless, anxious dreams. 

Returning to the motherland after a decade and a half is daunting even without being in the harsh spotlight of a family wedding. I realized how many names I had forgotten by now and how relatives further from the main family tree had turned into ghostly wisps from the past. Many births, weddings and funerals had come and gone in the years I was away. Some of my favorite people are no longer alive and there will be empty spaces in homes I spent a lot of my childhood and youth in. This summer I would meet many young people for the first time, sometimes I would struggle to connect them to their parents who I may have known only in the passing. They would struggle to place me in the family tree and defining how I was related to them. We may have nothing to talk about.

Would such a family re-union hurt or heal ? I will likely have to answer the question about such a long absence. The truth would be hard to tell - that there never was a day in all these years when I missed what I left behind bad enough to want to visit. What does such a truth make me ? A person undeserving of family, origin and roots maybe ? And what right does such a person have to be part of their niece's wedding ? How would I make her feel if I told her why I never came to visit ? And yet there is no lie to adequately answer such a question without insulting peoples' intelligence. I wrote to her of my excitement to see her after all these years and received a warm reply for which I was very grateful.

Maybe it matters to no one that I was gone so long. Their lives intersected so little with mine that my absence was unremarkable. Yet, if I had been present I may have mentored some of my younger relatives, been a good sounding board for their ideas, expressed my maternal instincts in ways that brought me fulfillment. It took several days for the tumult of emotions, that this impending visit to India had brought on, to subside. I felt more hopeful that the extended family may remember me as I was a long time ago, that I may be able to travel back to a far less complicated time of my life - just enjoy feeling young and full of crazy hopes and dreams once again.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Toxic Emails

Reading this HBR article on erosion of company culture was a bit too close to home. Having been both at sending and receiving end of such emails over the years, I know they help no one. The sender may feel self-righteous for having an unshakable work ethic but for the receiver it can be a mixed bag depending upon their relationship to the sender. As a manager, I have felt peeved that my guys don't know when to stop being tethered to work. I would rather they unplugged and returned ready to thrive. When a manager was checking in on emails from the beach while we the team were hard at work, it made us all feel incompetent as the writer notes.  

There is the tricky business of response etiquette - are we now supposed to keep this overzealous individual "in the loop" on all communications following their first check in ? Or keeping in mind the vacation, send them periodic summaries of our collective accomplishments ? Depending on the personality of the individual we are dealing with even thinking about this question can be fraught with stress. What if we communicated too little or too much ? If the sky was indeed falling did we need to alert them to it or should we proceed on our own ? What would that say of our management and delegation abilities and reflect in our annual review ? Did we need to get together as a team and agree on a communication protocol here ? Or should it be a free for all ? The answer varies by organization and team but there is no winning solution anyway.

So not only has the company culture fallen victim here but the act of shooting off quick notes on the Blackberry (when that was still a thing) from the sunny sands of Praia Marinha has elevated the composite stress index of the suckers back in the office. Despite knowing the foolishness and futility of sending such emails, I have been guilty of it myself more times than I can count. 

It often starts with having some loose end that was not tied before hopping on the plane. There could be this last straggling call or follow-up that needs to happen so things can be cleanly transitioned to my back-up in the office. It is courtesy owed to them before I can enjoy my vacation in clear conscience.  So you try to tie things up in the departure lounge and for a variety of reasons that does not work out. Several hours later when back on land you try again. In the meanwhile, a queue of stuff has built up on account of this pesky loose end that you failed to tie up on time. The person on vacation can feel twinges of guilt for not having taken care of this before they left, inconveniencing others in the process.

So in order to have successful vacation with the family it becomes imperative now to take stock of that queue and deal with anything that could bloom into a problem over the week. And so you do what is needed.You are already a third of way into your vacation and have neither unplugged nor allowed your team to remain sane in your absence. It is a lose-lose situation irrespective of how well the rest of your vacation goes. The only way I know to cope is to leave the phone behind when those who I love most in the world are present with me here and now. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Year That Was

A year of big changes yet the mooring remained intact. In which I try to make a difficult peace with my mother and get a year closer to my own empty nest. Strangers becomes friends and family yet reviving old ties prove impossible. There were cousins, aunts, nieces and nephews around the world that I felt I should try to restore connections with. The passage of time erodes the things we have in common with others. We forget the familiar phrasing and conversations of the past.

Two decades could be summed up in a couple of minutes - got married, had kids, love or hate the job, enjoy the vacations and time with family and volunteering in the community. Or there would be change that is impossible to describe - gave up everything I knew and decided to start over in a new country. Just the dog and I. There is much that goes into a decision like that and yet after a long hiatus in communication it is easier to skip the minutiae and go to the end. That way we are all caught up and can begin from the fresh.

It is almost easier when people have undergone dramatic change over a couple of decades to the point they bear no resemblance to who I once knew. There is the name and the face, maybe some shared history and memories but everything else is brand new. It is like walking into a fully remodeled kitchen into a home you knew since childhood. There is a lot to hold on to and yet there is no way to deny what is new. There is a lot of positive in such change which make the acceptance easy. Those of us who arrived slower and more traditionally to the dreaded mid-life are like a home that has seen wear and tear alongside upgrades. Nothing is quite what it used to be  but change is not so stark as to reset your relationship and spark a fresh start.

In the early months of the year I decided time had come for closure with my mother so I could take full responsibility for my life and not be so quick to pin blame. That process took most of the year and there is restive peace now. I do not have the closure I sought, I don't have the friend I once had in her. But there is no anger anymore. I am able to see her as a person with many flaws but to whom I owe a lot too. Once the flaws were fully visible I seemed to appreciate her much better as a mother and feel genuine gratitude.

There is no magic cure for writer's block. From being able to write every day and almost effortlessly to struggling to write once a year. From having much to say even if trite, inconsequential, opinionated without reason to experiencing the bottomless pit of emptiness where nothing worth saying exists.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Unexplained Phobia

Scale and complexity apart this article trying to whip up some AI phobia, recalls issues that have always been the around with poorly written code. Sure, the guy who comes up with the algorithm for the machine to teach and train itself may no longer be able to understand the results being produced by his code. The way the program works and the results its produces are clearly very hard to debug. This is no surprise.

Without naming names here, enterprise software products that have been around for decades have no lack of unsolvable bugs with more being added every release. The problem of untested or un-testable code (driven by bad design) is hardly new to AI but the consequences have grown considerably. But for those of us who understand the basics of programming it is hard to understand why the AI driven car run amok is any different from the various calamities we have faced in our professional lives when random shit happens with code with serious consequences for business and customers they serve.

There was the time when the e-commerce website was pricing stuff at $0 at midnight and some folks wised up to it and started to place large orders. I was grateful not be the on that fire-drill and only support those who were. Now imagine there was an AI programmed to be rewarded for largest number of orders being placed, it may have learned from the transaction pattern here to set all prices to $0 so the orders would flow in. The losses could have easily ballooned when bad code gets such a shot in the arm. This is like teaching your precocious four year old to read Green Eggs And Ham and then making them in charge of the MFA program in university.