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.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Between The World And Me

In the past year, I can't recall how may articles I have read about habits and routines of successful people. The focus on sleep hygiene is probably the common theme across them all. There seems to be the presumption that people have unlimited discretion on the use of their time and to that end they can just snap out of their loser-like habits and become a winner. Any full time working parent of an overbooked high schooler will tell you such is simply not the case. My friends with more than one kid have it much worse than I do. Every hour of time to be used at our discretion has to be earned with great effort. If I need to be on work related calls past 11 pm and still need to drop my kid off to swim practice at 6 am the next day, the math of my sleep hours is not within my control anymore.

But the constant admonitions of the experts on how not to become sick and a loser by way of sleep deprivation and being tethered to electronics served me well. I was able to change a few habits that fell in the "worst offenders" list. It also became clear in the process that I was not reading nearly as I much as I would like on topics that had nothing to do with my work. The absolutely luminous prose of Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between The World And Me was a prefect detox for my acquired bad habits over the last few years. Coates covers a lot of ground between personal narrative, history, reportage and race relations. There is very little if any anger in how the most troubling topics are discussed. Instead the reader is challenged to think about larger themes and the burden of history.

This is not a book about parenting but that was what resonated with me the most. He tells his son "You need to know that I was loved, that whatever my lack of religious feeling, I have always loved my people and that broad love is directly related to the specific love I feel for you". This is only one of the many memorable lines that made this one of the best parenting books I have read. Coates does not try to tell me how to be a good mother but helps me understand my mistakes and motivations as I try to be one to my fifteen year old.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sparse and Gapped

My home is tidy and sparse. At times it could feel weightless without the heft of memories. While watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I thought about coping with things from the past that still cause pain. In my case, I have given away a lot to the local thrift stores and am not all cleaned up yet. The more I give way the less burdened I feel. Over time the open spaces where things had been acquire a character of their own. It could be the way the sunlight falls there through the window on a winter afternoon, or it way I set my laundry hamper there and forget to take it upstairs. The blank spaces are claimed back from objects now gone along with stories they bore. With so many gaps all around, the story of me, of us who were part of it have imagined and alternate endings. They may traverse through these new spaces in ways they could not have done before.

Friday, December 02, 2016

At Blocked

The best cure for writers block is writing. This piece of wisdom came from an acquaintance who once wrote. Following a transformational life experience, it is hard to speak from the heart which was the point of this blog. The heart is not where or what is used to be. I seem to have a stranger living inside my head. The two of us don't speak the same language or think the same thoughts. They make me reconsider all opinions, beliefs, loves and hates of the past in new light. In that sense, the years are decades that shaped me are now invalidated. So there silence, alien ideas that are hard to grasp though they come from within and a crippling incapacity to write. All this time, I have missed the therapeutic value of writing.

As an exercise to come in alignment with the stranger in my head who I am beginning to learn about, here are some mutually agreeable thoughts about Facebook.

There has been much talk about the recent elections in America having been heavily influenced by fake news promoted by Facebook. People have their worldviews reinforced by seeing more of what they want to see or believe. So we grow more entrenched in our positions, vindicated by fake news as it turns out. But the success and even existence of Facebook is predicated on our need for pretense and deception. Fundamentally, Facebook is less technology company and more grand experiment in human psychology and manipulating it for financial gain.

My childhood friend A is in a dead marriage for fifteen years now. He calls me sometimes to talk about the suffocation, about pretending to be Facebook Happy like everyone else he knows. He talks about doing time as long as he is able, about doing the right thing by his two children. His family pictures are snapshots of perfection they are meant to be. There is large contingent of Friends congratulating him on his wonderful kids and beautiful wife. He politely thanks them all. He lives a lie every time he posts one of these vignettes of his life, gets innundated with Likes and cheering comments. He chooses to broadcast the fiction not because he cannot separate it from fact.

He is hardly alone in doing so. A is using Facebook exactly as it is meant be used. Just like the fake news feeds that caused so much uproar, each person is feeding a constant stream of their deseiratum - unfolding a false narrative of themselves to their Facebook Friends. Collectively we curate an alternative reality of our society whose bounds depend on how much influence we possess.

Those fake news feeds belong squarely in this universe and should not be singled out for censure. Indeed, there is no place for truth or real news on Facebook. It would be at fundamental odds with the point of its existense. If we can no longer create our alternate realities on Facebook complete with "news stories" that affirm them, we might as well not be there.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book Ends

This post bookends what has been a year of many upheavals and some closure as well. Some experiments failed big others succeeded much better than expected. Most year I tried desperately not to lose J completely.Staying connected to a teen daughter feels like grasping for straws.

She is experiencing her entry to womanhood in ways I cannot fully understand or appreciate.Her world is too different from mine at her age for any useful lessons to be passed along. What used to be a generation gap is magnified to a chasm by the pace of change between the 80s and now. I need to wait until she shares something to connect dots the best I can. This has been the hardest years of motherhood so far and J is a ways away from being an adult.

On the hardest days I tried to imagine the alternate endings to my story so far and also the road ahead may hold. What if I could simulate the conditions along the way to see where I may end up - much like testing out a driving simulator for potential life scenarios. I ended up watching The Secret after a particularly long day when the questionable claims made in the movie felt good - this is what I wanted to believe was possible. That I could imagine my happy state and just have the universe deliver me there. 

As result of all that the past year has been and some ideas from that movie, I did write up my life's wish list. It was an incredibly difficult thing to do. For each item on that list I had to pause - wishes turned out to be escape hatches, placeholders for decisions I did not want to make and a myriad of other conflicting things. So it was worth the effort to put that list together. I look at it often and am forced to align my efforts to my stated goals in life or accept that i still don't know what they are.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ten Years

Today marks the tenth year since I started this blog. The fact that I have been able to keep it on life support for the last several years and not totally killed it feels good. The fact that it even exists gave me motivation to return and write again. Readers have been kind enough to stay with me through the years that I was mostly absent and had nothing to say. Sometimes I would get an email of support or encouragement. For all of that I am grateful. I don't have a plan anymore and that is very liberating.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On Making

I stopped "making" anything tangible in my job many years ago. Since about the same time, I have experienced emptiness about what I do for a living and been troubled about purpose. As I grow older. the question of legacy comes to mind. There is a need to do something meaningful even if on a very small scale. When I get together with friends my age and older, we find that we have similar concerns and something common in how we cope with our inadequacies. A lot us "make" things outside work. In a token way, it gives us a sense of purpose.  Reading this Atlantic article about being a maker brings interesting insight to the culture of making and the value attributed to it

A quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem says: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” Maker culture, with its goal to get everyone access to the traditionally male domain of making, has focused on the first. But its success means that it further devalues the traditionally female domain of caregiving, by continuing to enforce the idea that only making things is valuable.

I don't associate the idea of making with the male domain. Making is about creating something that brings happiness or fulfills need for purpose. That is a gender neutral instinct.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Eating Virtually

Love the idea of being able to indulge in bad food (or at least imagine that you are) while eating what's good and right for you. Very promising for those who struggle with food - eating to too much or not at all. What would also be nice is the ability to serve memories of food - something you at many years ago while traveling to a place you had not visited before or since. And being able to share another persons's experience of food that they love. Imagine being able to substitute the menu of your favorite restaurant while eating a very boring dinner at home. So many interesting possibilities.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ugly Mirror

Interesting story about mirrors getting more than a little help from technology and completely ruining the object of our primal fascination. Sad to think that mirrors will get smart to a point where we can no longer see ourselves as we are, learn to live with and love our flaws. Instead, it would show us who we have the "theoretical" potential to become and goad us into improving ourselves. 

That is actually a little worse than amplifying our flaws. We may find a way to work with that over time - but the titillation of what we may have been if we made the right investments is a dangerous dream to chase after.

Clearly the airbrushed imagery we are subject to constantly are not conveying the message clearly enough. Maybe we are not able to personalize and internalize what we see in them. Maybe we separate "us" from "them" and go about the business of our lives. Someone saw the need to remedy that problem by bringing the truth much closer home.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fifty Times

Reading these lines from Seth's Godin's post produced a rather visceral reaction in me today. 

[I say 'choose' because anyone who has worked with programmers understands that the great ones are worth far more than the average ones. Sometimes 50 times as much. That's because great programmers are able to architect systems that are effective, that scale, and that do things that other programmers can't imagine until after they're done.]

What he says about great programmers I have been saying to the powers that be in my organization for a long time now. Not that anyone disagrees in principle but it is still a huge leap in faith when you decide to replace fifty with one. You almost make this person into a God. They just have too much power and control. They operate at a level that is inaccessible and incomprehensible to most people. 

Maybe those are the reasons why there is irrational resistance to hiring them. The average programmer is a mortal. They are practicing a trade and may be skilled at best. They are not savants. I have worked with a few 10x programmers in the course of my career. Have not been in places where it would be possible to run into the 50x ones but I do believe they exist. In the meanwhile we struggle with a team fifty times the size it needs to be and still not see light at the end of the tunnel.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sheep Not Snowflakes

This Wired story makes for very interesting reading. It indirectly explains why it is so hard to shop for clothes. Even with the seemingly endless variety there is overwhelming monotony - season after season, store after store. Once you have stocked up on the wardrobe staples, the rest gets much harder if your goal is to find clothes that express your individuality. 

There is many ways to join the sheep herd but nearly none to be a snowflake. Some of my friends shop for clothes at consignment stores because it easier to come by something unique there. Then there are those like Mrs L, who I knew many years ago, who have their all their clothes tailored in Hong Kong - completely bespoke and very much a snowflake.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thrift Nostalgia

Browsing through the discards and rejects of other people's lives often leads to serendipitous finds for me. I don't go to yard sales as much I as once used to but there are thrift stores I check out from time to time. Recently we found a book of sheet music for piano for a dollar. These are hits from the 70s with lot of nostalgic value for me some of which has been passed on to J. She has either heard or heard of most of the songs in the book and was excited to try and play them. 

Lately, piano has become a bit of a struggle for her. A demanding teacher who expects her to practice an hour each day - time she simply does not have. The fun has started to ebb away as J works on correcting her flaws week after week. The book brought about a sudden change. She loves to play tunes she is familiar with and sing along. She is not so worried about being good enough for Ms T - this is her music to have fun with. It makes the work that is assigned much easier to endure. She often loses track of time as she plays - something I have waited a long time to see happen.

This would be the best dollar I have ever spent.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Humanized Machines

A fridge door that can serve up hot coffee or soup controlled by wi-fi can look like an excellent idea when you are down with a bad cold, feeling miserable but not really sick enough to get too much attention. You just stay in, rest up and let it pass. In that state,even heating a meal is a pain. 

So ideally, you pick out what kind of soup you want, have the app let you know its ready so you can drag yourself with great difficulty to get it. But connecting this to a robot butler to deliver it bedside would make for a much sweeter deal.

Obviously there are ways to improve and personalize the experience even more. There could come a point where between the fridge, phone and the robot butler your care is better managed than any human in your life who would need to juggle several things to create the time for you. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Change In Likes

This article on how we grow to like foods we once hated is an interesting read. Have seen that happen to me and others I grew up with. The unthinkable reversals have happened. I used to attribute it to something strange that goes on with our taste-buds as we age - makes us like things as older adults that we hated as kids. 

It made sense when J says "I bet you would like it because I hate it. Adults seems to love the very things kids hate and the other way around". It seems to work that way quite often down to specific types of Halloween candy that J will have in her reject pile. Quite often I may find something that works for me. Similarly, J is not interested in the kind of chocolate I like. As she grows older, we seem to find more things in common when it comes to food. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Versatile Women

In a recent conversation with J, I learned some cultural norms of middle school. Girls are either taken seriously or not by their peers (male and female) based on how they present themselves. If she looks like she spends most weekends at the mall shopping cute outfits and an hour in front of the mirror each morning she is not taken seriously. Those are the signs of a bimbo. To that end, when invited to a party a serious girl can't stray too far from her native image. 

I challenged this assumption strongly and asked J why a girl who wants to be taken seriously cannot be versatile. There is a time and place to project a geek image and one in which to demonstrate social adeptness. Being in your comfort zone and around people just like you is easy for anyone - it takes no effort and as such there are no rewards. It is much harder to get comfortable outside that familiar ecosystem. 

When I was growing up in India, I recall "Satarupa" (one having a  hundred beautiful forms) women were held in high esteem. I have been lucky to know a few. Mrs S was in her fifties when I was in middle school. She had degrees from Princeton and Yale. Had traveled the wold, taught in universities, been in senior executive roles outside academia and was the mother of three grown up kids. She was invited to our school to talk to girls about career, work life balance and being a woman in a man's world. 

There was no minimizing or glossing over the challenges she had faced but she was positive about her experiences. You could tell she did not hate men in any way. She talked about forging partnerships with them and not being adversarial - learning to stand your ground but not losing your femininity in the process. She showed up in a sari like any other woman her age that we knew. 

Being girls we noticed her excellent taste and the light touch with the make-up and jewelry. She looked wonderful for her age and radiated confidence. She delivered a speech that rivals anything I have heard to this day. She shared her passion for baking and how she took lessons from pastry chefs in different countries where she had lived and worked. The importance of family rituals, celebrating festivals came up. She talked about how they did things in her home - there was nothing there we could not relate to. Our stay at home mothers did exactly what she did. 

Then there were some pictures of her over the years, as a student, newly wed, young mother, milestones in her career and so on that she shared. Old grainy images we saw through a projector that transformed our thinking about what it means to be a woman. Mrs S was indeed "Satarupa" and if her life thus far was any indication it had served her exceptionally well. It is a meeting I valued then and treasure to this day. There was no girl in that auditorium that did not want to be like Mrs S - in essence even if we could not replicate her life.