Monday, April 30, 2007

Saved By The Gecko

I almost choked over my iced lemonade at L's last evening when she recounted the story of how one gecko, a strong gust of wind and a brush fire within a week of each other saved her marriage. But for that trio of happenstance, she and Bob would have been divorced over fifteen years ago.

Apparently, each time she readies to serve him the papers, fate intervenes in mysterious ways. She will come down with stomach flu for a week or sprain her ankle on way out to work or a leak will spring in the bathroom that no one can fix as quickly as Bob can. This is a couple that have checked out of their marriage years ago but can't seem to do what it takes to end the farce and move on. Maybe this is the thing they call love or some would call it crippling codependence.

A couple of practical obstacles stand too in the way of L and her freedom to be single and mingling. She has a very demanding job - a typical workday ends at 8:00 p.m. and later, there are two kids to raise and she likes being the empress of all she surveys.

But even within those constraints finding a date does not seem impossible if she goes the way of Tim Ferriss who outsourced the
job of finding him dates to contractors. That would be right up L's alley too - she used to manage a the vendor relationships of a big company not so long ago.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Tap Water

In summertime, I miss the cool water from the surahi back home. My mother drenched the outside with water and then wrapped it in a moist towel. There was nothing more refreshing than to drink a glass of water from it after an afternoon siesta. I am sure that It did something good for the soul. Tap water went through some modest filtering at home before it made it to the surahi. When we moved to a new place, it was typical to check with the neighbors what they did about drinking water. The cleaning advise could range from filter, strain to boil for ten minutes.

By the 90s it was common to see huge containers of bottled water delivered to homes. The filtering units at home had turned more complex and expensive. With bottled water sharing shelf space with soda in the refrigerator, the trusty surahi had become a relic from the past just as the moistened khus window mats had been retired in favor of vinyl blinds and air conditioning. Kids these days most likely have never seen either in their homes.

Reading about the snob appeal of plain old tap water reminded me of childhood days. I don't know about snob appeal but I do think there was something very charming about the way our lives were back then.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Two Roomies - Keya and Anvi's Story

Anvi and Keya were roomies in college and as unlike as chalk and cheese. Everyone wondered how they even tolerated each other in the same room. They did have a few things in common though. Love of reading and wanderlust. Anvi had been able to indulge in more of the later than Keya because she was an army brat.

Colonel Shergill had been posted in some pretty fascinating places including Kargil, Leh, Lakswadeep and near Kaziranga. Even a partial listing of all the places she had lived in made Keya dizzy with longing. How could anyone move so many times in eighteen years she wondered. Keya was a voracious reader with eclectic tastes. Travelogues were among her favorite genres. Listening to Anvi talk about her childhood all over India was her new favorite pastime. Anvi enjoyed the attention and specially her boundless curioisity.

Beyond that the two had little to nothing in common. Music was a major bone of contention. Anvi was into hard rock and heavy metal . That was the kind of music that made Keya want to puke. Using headphones was discussed on occassion but almost always forgotten. Anvi would argue that she tolerated Keya's bland classical music stoically so there ought to be quid pro quo. Status quo prevailed in the end. Keya would find another place to study or read until Anvi had had her daily fix of "noise pollution" as she called it.

They often talked about future plans and life after college. Anvi was taking the GRE and the GMAT. She could not see herself living and working in India - ever. To her growing up in India was a rite of passage before reaching her true destination - The United States. She wanted to be a Wall Street trader and make obsence amounts of money.

To Keya that sounded aboout as outlandish as someone saying their life's purpose was to colonize the Moon. She wanted to live and work in India and wanted to pursue a business management degree after she was done with college. To her, life would be good if she had a sea facing apartment in Mumbai, a decent husband two kids and a job that was both interesting and remunerative.

Anvi was vehemently opposed to even the notion of marriage not to mention any subsequent child bearing. "If I ever get married I'll be sure to chop my tubes off so he can't get me pregnant" Keya recoiled in horror when she first heard that. Anvi would prefer a live-in relationship preferably without any long term commitments to have her "needs met" and then find something new and exciting to move on to.

Men to her were a disposable commodity that only stupid women wanted to hang on to past expiration date. Keya imagined she would fit right in the NYC milieu with those very un-Indian attitudes. It was another thing that neither of them had ever stepped out of India unless you count that odd trip to Nepal.

Fifteen years later, Anvi runs a niche social networking site for mountaineers. It is one of her hobbies. She has always lived and worked in Bangalore. There have been many opportunities to come to the US on business but something has always happened at the very last minute to prevent the trip.

She has traveled around Asia on both business and pleasure. She would not settle for anything less than an Ivy League school with a scholarship and when that did not happen she decided not to go the US for her masters. These days, she is in a long distance relationship with a mountaineer from New Zealand. They met when she was vacationing in Phuket with friends.

Keya started her career in Bangalore too. Business school did not quite happen instead she got married and moved to the US with her husband. Her career is non-existent but its a safe job and pays the mortgage. She has a home in the burbs five hours away from the nearest ocean, two kids and a husband who is obsessed with his career and being a good son to his parents. Keya and the kids exist in his peripheral vision but for the most part she is doing quite okay.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Old And New

When we tried Six Sigma at one of my former client's IT organization, the resident Black Belt warned us that our mileage would vary a good bit from the manufacturing industry where it has been implemented with great success for years. IT is still evolving, its not fully established and stable in the way car manufacturing is. There is not a playbook that will work year after year.

Once you take all that ambiguity and flux into account, Six Sigma can do less than its best. That said, we gave it a shot. When it came time to meet your Green Belt certification requirements most of us struggled to find a project that could fit the
DMAIC mold. It called attention to how little we knew about what went on in our shop. If we had been in the business of rolling cars out of an assembly line we would be out of business so fast that it would not even be funny.

Those were sober and humbling realizations and we had Six Sigma to thank for it. Green Belt projects spun up at dizzying pace. Suddenly there was opportunity at every corner that we had never realized until now. The younger and the more inspired among us believed that they could solve everything that ailed our shop by DMAICing it. Other than creating an acute awareness of where we fell short, those projects did not do a whole lot to improve our circumstances.

Customers were buying a product that had to meet their needs which evolved rapidly. With that ended any parallels with car manufacturing or buying. In the interests of expediency procedural rigor suffered all the time. If there was any way to cut a development cycle short it would be done. The costs of doing so would be an afterthought at best, forgotten as soon as the lessons learnt documentation was posted in the project workspace.

Now there is the
open source car. This is about the establishment going the way of Linux. It would be interesting to see how this unfolds if at all.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Lighting A Fire

This kind of stuff goes on routinely in the cavernous bellies of large IT organizations inside even larger companies. Only a small person's ranting on the waste and mismanagement of money and resources, misuse and abuse of power does not make it all the way to WSJ. Maybe his case was helped by nature of his complaint and concern "It could very well become an issue of making sure our physicians and nurses have the tools they need to save lives."

Such talk usually stays around the water cooler and the smoking porch coming up for air sometimes at the happy hour if the company is right. Small people know to hold their peace and watch their backs. It does not take a lot to make their little jobs redudant even without complaining that "Their poor decisions...are positioning us for potentially catastrophic failure,"

It is about time that folks in the trenches felt empowered by all the information that they have access to.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Desi Wedding

With all due respect to Ms Rai's nuptials, is seems unfair that it defines what happens commonly in Indian weddings. Yahoo News will now have the world believe that :

In India, it is common for the couple and their families to perform choreographed dance routines during pre-wedding ceremonies.

While that could be the gold standard for Bollywoodized caricature of an Indian wedding, but it sure would be a cold day in hell before a statuesque Tamil mother-in-law gyrated to entertain the guests at her son's wedding with Chi Sow Sowmya. Matrons elsewhere in the country will likewise not take to the dance floor like ducks to the water as Yahoo's sources aver.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Temple Trip

J had asked to go to the temple so we did yesterday. I am not sure what part of the temple experience draws her but I am glad that it does. It is the only opportunity she gets to see a number of people who have the same skin color as us. Most kids come to temple in ethnic clothes but J does not have any as yet. I notice their absence only at such times and forget soon thereafter.

Visiting a Hindu temple in the US has never been a religious experience for me. Something about the purohit tipping a half gallon container of Marva Maid over the Shiv Linga turns prayer into pantomime. The effort to educate the children about religion underscores every activity.

The mantras chanted by the purohit are beamed up from a laptop using an LCD projector. The priest has a small microphone clipped on his vest. The place is bristling with technology. You almost fear that they may decide to record and upload the event on YouTube for the greater edification of the masses. After the havan, a well meaning old gentleman makes a PowerPoint presentation explaining what went on in English. Everyone listens to him very respectfully. We are awed by the trouble he has taken to put this together.

All of this is nothing like the temple experience that I grew up with. No one made any effort to translate what the priest was saying. You repeated after him, went through the motions, sought and received blessings and went off your way. There was no pressure to make it an educational experience.

The Gods were within reach, easy to placate and even easier to relate to. The floor would be grimy from oil, water, turmeric, sindoor, flowers, leaves, ashes from burnt incense sticks. The stone idols would feel cold and sometimes sticky to touch. There was a sense of immanence about the temple and everything related to it. The Gods had dwelled before you and would continue to do so long after you. The temple was built around an idol with a long and obscure history.

The notion of a temple in this country is completely different as it must obviously be. The idol is no more than a doll resembling a Hindu god. It has no history and in as such no independent locus-standi. It is not nearly the potent idol of Krishna nestling in the gnarled roots of an old banyan tree that passers by stop to pay obeisance to.

It not surprising that the kids are bored out of their minds, sitting by the corner with their back to the idols reading comic books. The older ones feel a sense of obligation to their parents and go through it more patiently but not necessarily with any greater comprehension of what is going on. Surprisingly, the real time transcription and translation of the mantras does little to alleviate the problem.

Maybe this is a case of the road to hell being paved with the best intentions. As for J, she acts like an interested and curious tourist taking in the sights of a place unlike anything she sees on a regular day. As a Hindu and a parent do I have an obligation to make her take it a lot more seriously ? I don't know.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Longing To Color

I took J to Michael's last evening to compensate for a working weekend that this one has been. We got small beading kit, a photo frame key chain and a toy that helps you to make intricate spirals designs quite effortlessly. I always end up in the sketching and painting supplies aisle. Touching the paint brushes reminds of a time in another life when I spent all day doing watercolors.

Other than reading, this was an activity I could immerse myself in so completely that I grew oblivious of the world around me. I had some talent for painting but plenty of passion to compensate for what I lacked. Somehow, over time the passion flagged and ultimately wore off. I did not feel exhilarated at the sight of paints and brushes. Returning to a childhood hobby becomes harder with the passage of time but it is never impossible.

In the meanwhile, I'd love to go down this giant slide for grown-ups. If it gives me anything close to the rush of happiness going down the slide in my kindergarten days, I will have no doubt left that these slides will soon be embraced as an effective means of combating stress and depression.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Unknown Or Unseen

Just trying to read this paper on the relationship between God and calculus reminded me why I keep my religious beliefs very simple and never fancied calculus too much. Probability, permutations and combinations were a whole lot more fun.

quote made me wonder if it is really true that we no longer have the sense of being surrounded the unseen.

"One of the reasons why religions seem irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen." -- Karen Armstrong, A History of God

Maybe we don't relate the unseen to God, but we are painfully aware of both the unseen and unknown. We worry about what cell phone and microwave radiation can do to us along with what the
experience of ordering a pizza may turn into once Homeland Security implements the National ID. The former is the fear of the unseen while the later is that of the unknown.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Unfamiliar Words

Someone I knew once was fond of the asking "Capiche ?" anytime he explained something at length which was often. I figured from context that the word meant something like "Do you understand ?" and never really bothered to look it up.

More recently, I came across copasetic in a meeting and followed by an email to me. While it was easy to guess meaning from context, I had to make sure because I was responding to a client so I waited to reply until I looked it up.

In a social context directional understanding of an unfamiliar word usually suffices but one hesitates to take the same liberty in the workplace. Both situations involved unfamiliar words and expected a response from me. It is almost as if words and language intrinsically don't aid or impede communication as much as our initial response to unfamiliarity.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Reading this article about making sperm cells from human bone marrow reminded me of a quote by James Thurber:

"Nature, prefiguring the final disappearance of the male, has aided science in solving the problem of the continuation of the human being with her usual foresight, by establishing the ingenious, if admittedly stuffy, technique of artificial insemination. It is only a question of time before the male factor in the perpetuation of the species becomes a matter of biological deep freeze, an everlasting laboratory culture, labeled, controlled, and supervised by women technicians. The male, continuously preoccupied with his own devices and his own mythical destiny, polysyllabically boasting of his power and purposes, seems blithely unconscious of the conspiracy of Nature and women to do him in."

And of course :

"And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


That night as I tried to sleep, images of students trapped in a room with a
rampaging gunman,the floor slippery with blood, crowded my head. The only time
I was in VA Tech was about six years ago to meet with a friend who studied there
at the time. As much as I tried, it was impossible to recall the tranquility
about the campus that I had felt then.
When I saw the news on CNN in the morning while at work, my first instinct
was to get J from school and stay home with her for the rest of the day.
I thought about how ridiculously easy it is for anyone to get inside her school
and how the children were at the mercy of adults who could turn from being
caregivers to murderers like the queen of fairytales who is really a witch
and shows her true colors when least expected.
You want to make sense of such random acts of violence so you are able to protect
yourself and your loved ones. You want to attribute reason where possibly none
exists. Even with the benefit of perfect hindsight what could any of those who
died at VA Tech have done different so they may have lived ? What if any are the
lessons learnt for the survivors ? Does it make sense to understand the mind of
the killer or does one accept such aberrations as something that cannot be
controlled or changed ? Are these things acts of God like a natural calamity
or can society provide some kind of a restraining influence ?
Then you read the news which warns you that the worst is yet to come :

Gerard Baker, a columnist for The Times newspaper,
feared worse was yet to
come: "The truth is that only
an optimist would imagine Virginia Tech will
hold the
new record for very long."

France's Le Monde newspaper said such episodes
frequently disfigure the
"American dream."
"The ... slaughter forces American society to once
again examine itself,
its violence, the obsession with
guns of part of its population, the
troubles of its
youth, subjected to the double tyranny of abundance

and competition," it wrote.

24/7 news coverage of the tragedy will cease in time.Life will go on. We will
forget to count our blessings to be alive and return home to our families on
ordinary days. I told J about what had happened when we got home that evening.
The enormity of what had happened did not register on her but she repeated a
few times "I am a good child so the bad guy would not kill me". Being good is
her mantra for being safe.
I did not dare break her bubble and tell her that good people can get killed too,
that there are no rules in the adult world that don't have an exception. Hard
as it is to comprehend such events, it is a million times harder to try and
explain any of it to a child. I felt so tired and hopelessly defeated.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Beautiful Narrative

Just finished reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and loved it. What struck me as most amazing about this book is that its voice belongs to a man much older than the writer himself but not once does it falter or want in authenticity. You wonder how he does it and with such mastery. The protagonist is so utterly real that it is hard to believe you are reading a story.

Dinaw Megsetu speaks to an universal condition when his hero Sepha Stephanos says :

"How did I end up here? That seems like an inappropriate question to ask after seventeen years in a country. How is it that I came to own and run a store in the center of a blighted neighborhood , and how is it that now as my store, or what is left of it, is about to be taken away, that I can do nothing but sit on the floor of my uncle's apartment and run through the past. Narrative. Perhaps that is the word I am looking for. Where is the grand narrative of my life ? The one I could spread out and read for signs and clues as to what to expect next. It seems to have run out, if such a thing is possible. It's harder to admit that perhaps it had never been there at all. Do I have the courage to explain all this away as an accident ?"

Monday, April 16, 2007

Too Petite

J is small for her age but not alarmingly so - at least up to now. I do worry about it sometimes but tell myself she'll catch up soon. I have to admit that it is important to me that she "catches up". Reading one mom's heartfelt post about her tiny daughter struck a very painful chord. J's doctor commends me on keeping her off processed and junk food, on taking the time to prepare wholesome home cooked meals - specially for giving J only organic dairy products. Apparently, I am doing all the right things and J is doing just great. She clings to the height and weight charts almost precariously which the doctor assures me is does not factor race.

Yet when I go to her school, J is the tiniest person in the whole class. Even elsewhere, I notice other Asian and Indian kids her age are a lot bigger than her. What is more they also seem to be more mature in a social setting. For the longest time, I had attributed that to J's lack of exposure to popular culture. While she can be precocious at home, she adopts this almost "baby persona" around these bigger looking kids - probably her strategy for fitting in.

For the most part the kids in her class take her under their wing and baby her because she is the youngest and the smallest among them. J seems to find it comforting and suffocating by turn. I have noticed that she gets along very well with older kids who like her are smaller than average - with them she is more her natural self. Being taller than average myself, I have no idea how it is to feel like a "ballet dancer among basket ball players" all the time. I lack J's world view and in as such the ability to help her rise above her challenge.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Stand And Stare

A few days ago, I was in an art gallery thinking that some of the works selling for $200 and over were worth that much only for their framing. But for it, the work might be considered very ordinary- definitely not something one would pay to buy. What does not having a frame of reference to do a masterpiece is definitely worth pondering and Washington Post experimented recently to find out. They had the violinist Joshua Bell play incognito at L'enfant Plaza in DC during morning rush hour to see if he would draw a crowd.

As it turns out only children have true knowledge of great music, they stop and listen to it :

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Classic Clothes

Growing up, Ms M was one of the most fashionable women I knew. Her taste was impeccable and she had a rather small wardrobe. Once while talking about the distinction between style and fashion, she introduced me the this quote by James Laver

"The same dress will be Indecent 10 years before its time, Shameless 5 years before its time, Outré (daring) 1 year before its time, Smart in its time, Dowdy 1 year after its time, Hideous 10 years after its time, Ridiculous 20 years after its time, Amusing 30 years after its time, Quaint 50 years after its time, Charming 70 years after its time, Romantic 100 years after its time, Beautiful 150 years after its time."

I was not able to tell where in the fashion timeline Ms M fit; since her primary attire was the sari and there is something inherently timeless about it. However, I picked up a few rules about attire and makeup from observing her that have stood the test of time.

1. Wear classic styles so you don't have to replenish your wardrobe frequently. Saris make that easier but it is not impossible with western attire either.

2. Expensive accessories make an ordinary outfit look extraordinary. Ms M's shoes and bags looked very well maintained and expensive. The jewelry was minimal but beautiful and perfectly coordinated with her clothes.

3. Never dress too young even if you have what it takes to carry it off. Ms M looked younger than her years despite her rather conservative style. Younger by far than women who made concerted efforts to look young.

4. Makeup is not a constant thing. Sometimes less is more and at other times more is less. Ms M on a regular working day looked nothing like she did on a Diwali or New Year party. She startled you with the dramatic change and you wondered when she may be dressed like that again. You remembered the look.

5. Create an unique individual style that has nothing to do with latest fashion. Ms M had a certain distinction about her that fashionable women could never emulate. In the fifteen years that I knew her, she never changed her hairstyle. Yet she managed to look refreshingly different everyday.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Team Work

A few weeks ago, I had was holed up for a couple of days in a large conference room with the team fighting some fires. There was nothing remarkable about the work we were trying to do but the social interactions were quite interesting and provided much needed distraction.

S - Is hyperactive, extroverted ready to break in a jig anytime the team accomplishes something. WooHoos,Yays and High Fives come to her naturally and in great abundance. The rest of us are a fairly taciturn bunch but her enthusiasm can be contagious. She has two dogs and a husband, a red BMW and large house in the burbs. She was raised genteel poverty with two other siblings by a single mother. One sister is a hairdresser and the other is going to graduate from college. S has a fantastic wardrobe and always look like a million bucks.

J - Drives two hours each way to work. Has a house in the burbs, drives a Ford Explorer. As two kids that go to daycare run by a Baptist Church. Her clothes are never fashionable, they look like they've been slept in. Her hair has no style and she does not wear makeup. She is an unapologetic geek and likes to look like one.

B - The oldest team member. He and his wife have come out of retirement to work full time. They have no kids so they travel all over the world on their annual vacations. Last month they were in Barbados. B wears place commemorative tee shirts all the time. It seems like he works only so he is able to get away from it. He talks in a kind of mumble, seeming to say rather important things that turn out to be quite meaningless. He calls the rest of us "kiddos".

C- Boss man. Manages by delegation. Is able to trust everyone to do their job right until they prove otherwise. Fun guy to work with. Wife runs a salon. Has two school going kids. The teacher of the youngest one thinks he has ADD. C thinks that's just baloney.

S and J get chatting about wines. B says "I like it dry and oaky" J throws a few names around that might fit the bill. Mentions a few vineyards in the vicinity where she should go wine tasting. "Nah, I've lived in California. Napa Valley is good enough for me" says S. S and J talk about what they have in their homes. They both have hot tubs and they both soak in it all weekend. J says "I never get into the hot tub without a glass of wine". S says "Me neither".

Soon more talk of wine follows. Dry and oaky is mentioned again. J throws yet more names. S doesn't look like she's heard of any of them. Neither of them know too much about wines I think since they don't describe the wines they care about in the lush prose that is the staple of wine reviews. I notice B is silent. Maybe he knows more than he lets on. So talk turns to decks and wall papering on the bathrooms. S says "I have this lemon and lavender combination - I know it sounds weird. But it’s my favorite bathroom. I hardly ever use the three others"

J talks about her bathrooms. The count is about same. They thankfully don't talk cars. Because J's old Ford Explorer and would not equal the red BMW S has . B and C don't have much to say until the ladies talk about the living rooms. C has a pool table in the middle of the living room and a bar to the back. More talk of living rooms decor, wet bars and basements follow.

The general theme is mine is more expensive than yours. I got the feeling that everyone knows that the others are exaggerating a tad to keep with the Joneses of the moment. No one fully believes the other's version of what they have. We had several of these exchanges in the course of a week that we were corralled in the conference room. As an outsider to this whole social situation, I thought it would be fun to rank order richest to poorest based on what I had heard them say they possessed and my perceptions about them before I knew.

I'd say B has the most simply because he contributed least to the discussions about who has what. S gets organic dog food mailed to her from across the country. Her middle name is extravagance. I would guess she is pretty deep in credit card debt. J and C are in the middle - not sure why I thought that. They don't seem the kind that would go overboard trying to live the rich lifestyle. They'll keep up appearances but only up to a point and conservatively.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Packed Lunches

Mimi's photoblog of lunches she packs for her school going kids had been inspirational for me when I first saw it. I pack J's lunch for her every morning, try to make it aesthetically pleasing but come nowhere close to Mimi. She is gifted. But the idea of packing a lunch that looks different each day, getting children excited about what they might discover in their lunch box is definitely worth emulating.

The act of preparing and packing a lunch for J, takes me back to my own childhood. I thought then that my mother had the perfect life, that I was at its epicenter and her universe revolved around me.

Most of those illusions were dispelled with time and maturity. I learnt how she overcame the challenges of her circumstances to preserve the illusion of harmony amid chaos and create things of beauty mainly using her imagination. I may not have always been the focal point of her existence like I thought but I was always abundantly loved.

There is to me a certain Zen about arranging baby carrots, grapes and broccoli and make it all look like a smiley face; just like a sand Mandala blown away, the ride on the school bus will undo your efforts completely.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sliding Downward

When you walk into Lindsey's apartment, you smell the Lysol and room freshener. The carpet is steamed on a weekly basis. With the paintings on the wall, flowers on the coffee table and the oversize couch, there is a feeling of home about her place. It is easy to feel comfortable. Her two girls have rooms overflowing with stuff. Their closets are full of new and fashionable clothes. They are six and eight and have been familiar with the dictates of "fashion" for years.

The youngest is J's age and her current best buddy but the oldest adores her as well. J hangs out a a lot at Lindsey's and likewise Lindsey's girls come to my place frequently. J feasts on microwaved hush puppies and frozen pizza and her kids love my freshly cooked Indian style dinners. The contrast between our homes and our lives is glaring to say the least. Mine is minimalist in every way and hers is a study in material excess. Interestingly, the kids (both her and mine) are equally comfortable in both places.

Lindsey used to be social worker and made less that forty thousand a year. She would not be able to support her current lifestyle as a single parent with intermittent child support from her ex with that salary. Yet she lives in the moment like tomorrow does not exist. She has a drinking problem, is not motivated to find work because Medicaid is better than any medical insurance she could get from being employed.

She sems to have worked the math and it tells her it is better to live off her savings and depend on Medicaid and the occasional child support she does get because the cost of full time child care summer camp and all, balanced against employer sponsored insurance and the everything else that would take to support a full time job is just not sustainable on the money she would make from it.

At the going rate, she will come to a point when the savings have been depleted and go into credit card debt. Her lifestyle will need to be downgraded. She may need to move to a town and neighborhood where she could get by with less. The kids will be uprooted and replanted several times, each move involving compromises that they will find hard to make.

Getting to know Lindsey has been a great learning experience for me. She comes from an affluent background but lacks the education to get a job that will allow her to raise two children independently less give them the kind of life she had growing up. I can see how she would not want her daughters to miss out on anything that she had as a child - I do the same for J. It is possibly an universal parental desire to give their kids everything good they had.

I came to America when I became a single parent because I thought society here would be accepting of my condition and J would grow up feeling she was just like any other kid, that her family was not unusual in any way. The absence of a father in her life would never be a sticking point in her social interactions. All of that has happened for me and J.

Yet, for someone like Lindsey who has roots several generations old in this country, there is very little the system offers to ease her life as a single parent. It is as if a society where every other couple is likely to get divorced and turn into a potential single parent, the system turns a blind eye to their financial plight and is geared only to serve the interests of "regular" families with two incomes and a wide support net for themselves and their children.

Sure, she is no social pariah and has a vibrant social life but the threat of crippling poverty and even homelessness is very real. Unless she does something to transform her entire world view, her dependence on drink would only grow in direct proportion to her feeling of hopelessness about her situation.

Being a cultural outsider, I have no compelling need to fit in and I don't even try. I can afford to have a way of life that appears alien to people from her social milieu. It would just be considered an Indian thing at worst and a character quirk at best. Either way it would not stand in the way of my being accepted and being able to socialize.

Lindsey does not have the same luxury. She has to conform to the mores of her society to belong, just like in India I could not decide to live a life that had nothing in common with that of my friends and relatives and still hope they would include me in the fold. If I chose to turn into an outsider, I would be treated as one as well. That would defeat the whole intent and purpose of being in one's comfort zone, in one's home country and culture.

Maybe there are some life changing events that require people to transplant themselves geographically and culturally to be able to survive the aftermath. With her savings, Lindsey could probably move to Mexico and she would be able to live comfortably even with a low paying job. I can definitely picture her in India doing quite well financially.

I wonder if that may be the trend of the future - for people to become nomadic, moving to a country that is more affordable to live in when you no longer have the means to live the life you were used to in your home country. Cultures would confluence at unusual places to result in unexpected outcomes.The world would become everyone's oyster and maybe that is a good thing.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Movement And Balance

Was listening to an interview with the author of Einstein - His Life and Universe on NPR yesterday. While talking of his personal life, he quoted a line from a letter Einstein wrote to his son "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving"

I wondered what he may have meant about the need for balance and movement and in what context. Is balance and therefore movement so important in life that it would ill behoove upon anyone to stop and risk tumbling ? I would need to read the entire text to understand but the quote stuck in my head because it speaks so much to my life's condition.

The last several years have been about ceaseless movement coupled with a very contrary sense of stagnation. I must have been spinning circles in one position without any movement forward. The sense of balance has been lacking as well. I dare not stop moving simply because it would take more than I have to overcome the inertia of rest that would result in. Movement is therefore from a sense compulsion. I wondered if balance would be restored if I moved directionally as well.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Seeing Colors

Like the author of this article, I have often wondered if the green I see is the same as the green another person sees. How can we know we see the same thing even when we call it green. It is hard to accept that people may see the color differently and still call it the same thing. It calls into question the small core of things we hold to be universal.

The notion that pain varies between individuals does not disturb us. Why, then, do we resist the idea that different people see different colours?

Whereas the sensation of pain is related to individual tolerance for it and it makes sense that people feel different intensities, the same is not true about colors. As the author points out :

There is a lawfulness to colour, and it would help if we knew where this lawfulness resided

If red and green did not have the same universal connotation, they could not be used to traffic lights. My green being your red would just not work. Yet my green is likely a little different from yours.

Synaesthesia may simply be an exotic manifestation of something we all enjoy: the ability to turn sensations into symbols, and to think with them. After all, if our thoughts are not made of sensations, what are they made of? And this is why we find it so distressing, you and I, to realise that we don't see the same colours. Colours - so striking, so beautiful, so manifestly there - are one of the few things we can agree on, more or less. How cast adrift will we feel if colours turn out to be, after all, only our thoughts about light?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Namesake

Watched The Namesake yesterday. Having read the book earlier, I was curious to see how it would translate in cinema. Meera Nair's succinct adaptation of the story flows better than what Lahiri had originally written. Irfan Khan and Tabu provide the film most of its heft though the story really revolves around Kal Penn who plays their son Gogol. The scenes from life in Calcutta are entirely believable even if somewhat cliched. Being that first generation immigrant angst is an universal condition, the use of certain stereotypes is perhaps inevitable while depicting it.

When Tabu talks about how watching her teenaged kids makes her think she gave birth to strangers, she echoes the feelings of many parents like Ashok and Ashima Ganguli. Alienation between parent and child can and does happen even if they are raised in their home country. The only difference is that in a foreign country such children flounder along and find their harbor in a foreign culture that their parents do not fully comprehend. While the effects of alienation are percieved more viscerally by immigrant parents, the condition itself is not unique to them.

Ashok abortive attempts to explain the significance of the name Gogol in his life to his son highlights what is contributing to the distance between parents and the kids. He allows the riptide of foreign culture sweep his children away seeming to presume he will not be able to influence or stop it. That seems like a defeatist approach but is hardly uncommon. You wonder how the kids might have fared if the parents had put up a resistance and made an effort to reach out to them.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


The web page becomes almost lifelike if text and buttons on it got shuffled around to reflect the speed of wind blowing outside. Taking it a level further might increase and decrease ambient brightness depending on time of day. Having text completely wiped out to draw attention to a raging thunderstorm in the area might be a good way to call attention to it.

The idea of feeling connected to nature and the real world even while in cyberspace is great. The central theme of David Suzuki's The Sacred Balance , we and nature are the same thing and the fate of one is inextricably linked to the other, could be turned into something that you are forced to remain aware of.

The butterfly effect would no longer be a esoteric scientific theory but an undeniable fact of life reaffirmed by the changing landscape of the online newspaper you are reading to reflect real time the consequences of what is going on in the enviornment around you.

Friday, April 06, 2007

To Root Or Not

Reading this story alleging Indian call center workers were contributing to the success of Sanjaya Malakar made me chuckle. If a desi is doing well for himself, ponyhawk and tone deafness notwithstanding can blaming the Indian BPOs be far behind ? Everything that ails America as we all know can be traced back to outsourcing jobs to India. Wonder why it took this long to identify root cause and put the blame where it rightly belonged.

Being Bengali I am only too familiar with how five dudes in Garia with more time on their hands than they know what to do with, will start a fanclub for the Guatemalan football team. Interestingly, there does not seem a bunch of Bongs from Kolkata rooting for Malakar. Historically, they turn hysterical if there is one part per million of Bengali in anyone famous. Maybe Malakar challenges the conventional notions of fame and notoriety. He has the Bongs a tad confused. Too root or not to root for Shonjoy (which how his name would translate to in Bengali-speak) seems to be the question on their minds.

However, if he wins the contest, the fanclub in Garia is inevitable.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Learning Math

Both the Inconvenient Truth about math education and its rebuttal provide much food for thought. Having grown up in India where the math was taught by rote and the emphasis was on developing skill rather than analytical ability, I can safely say I have lived the good and bad of the system that is being touted at the fix for math education in America. It is true that most of us have the essential problem solving skills it takes to find drone work. Those of us who have more than that, fare better in life. We don't depend on the calculator nearly as much.

Teaching an inquisitive child math specially when she refuses to learn anything by rote or commit things to memory, the Indian system no longer works. I have tried with J and have resoundingly failed. She is the kind of kid who would enjoy figuring five different ways to arrive at the product of 36 times 6 and not like being told to follow the simplest algorithm. I am sure there are many kids like J out there and a system that straitjackets them into one defined way to solve a problem will be met with much resistance if not complete non-compliance.

I have to agree with the rebuttal video in that a good math education should combine the rigor and discipline of learning things by rote but also show children why they are doing what they doing and how it all comes together. To exclude one at the cost of the other is a recipe for failure. You either produce drones that can crunch numbers like bots or philosophers who can't figure the simplest things out without writing a treatise first. It seems that school systems are challenged by the lack of time to do an equal measure of both. Perhaps parents need to supplement with what is missing to round their child's math education.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Mystery Reader

I was the mystery reader in J's classroom this morning and nervous as hell. Making presentations at work is infinitely easier than impressing a dozen five to six year old kids. I think I did okay judging by how many kids hugged me afterwards and the big group hug before I left. Mrs. H gave me two books to read. Princess Smartypants had the popular vote to be read first. This is a fairytale gone ultra-modern. The princess has no desire to find less marry any Prince Charming.

She puts all prospective suitors through their paces. They don't past muster and in as such fail to win her hand. Finally, there is Prince Swashbuckle.
He passes all the tests the others failed but he does not think that Smartypants is all that smart. She kisses him a magic kiss and that turns him into a monster toad. The princess remains Ms happily ever after.

The kids enjoyed the twists in the tale and I am sure they are all familiar with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty genre that this story parodies. I was not sure if there story conveyed was positive or affirming message for either sex. As the Salon columnist points out :

Both "Princess Smartypants" and "The Paper Bag Princess" indulge in a '70s impulse to solve gender inequities by eliminating men from the picture altogether.

That is a rather retarded idea and does more disservice than good to little girls.
The next book, The Wolf's Chicken Stew was truly delightful. The kids loved it much more. Even the girls thought it cooler for the Wolf and chickens to become friends in the end than have a princess turn a relatively harmless prince into an ugly toad. I was glad to see that kids are able to tell trash from the good stuff. Use of pop-culture props and Disneyfication of story are the not surefire ways to win them over. If they are introduced to classic literature quickly they will be able to resist the revisionist, pseudo-feminist forces. I hope Mrs. H is doing that.'s important to approach reconstituted fairy tales as a supplement to rather than a replacement for the classics, which have their own transgressive beauty and irresistible folkways.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Blighted Fairytale

My cousin who grew up in NY gave up a great career along with his elderly parents to be with the woman he loved in Melbourne. They had met online and decided to get married shortly thereafter. It was a long distance relationship that ended like fairytales are supposed to. It proved when the person is right, continents turn trivial. He was to us living a fantastic romantic ideal - atleast until last week when he died at age twenty nine.

When I heard, I felt incomprehension. How could that be possible ? Surely they were talking of someone else. How does anyone die of bronchitis in this day and age ? After being ill for several months in Melbourne he came home to NY but it turned out to a little too late. After spending two weeks in the hospital he died.

I remembered the sound of his laughter, the smile that lit up his face and his favorite couch where he sat watching baseball games. When I was going through the worst in my marriage and needed help to bail out, he was there for me. I spent Thanksgiving day with his family, J was only a few months old. He dropped us off at the airport when we were coming home to India. He was better with car seats than I was.

None of these memories are very old and yet his sudden death has blurred every last detail. It is probably
my defense against pain. At times like this I want to believe that both life and death are only illusions and neither state is permanent, that somewhere in Australia my cousin is still happy, alive and well; married to the woman he loves - nothing has really changed. I know I will not be offering condolences to his parents because I cannot bear to see their pain. The tears will writhe and coil inside but not be cried until I have the strength to accept loss.

Monday, April 02, 2007


Chatted with my old buddy A after four months this morning. He is a new dad and his eight month old daughter has him wrapped around her finger. Most of our conversation was around children - his and mine. He had a confession to make though - maybe that's why he called. His wife of two years is wonderful in every way and he is grateful for having her in his life. He has not disappointed her as a husband either.

Yet, there is sense of emptiness in their marriage and it seems to have grown since their child was born. They have been married just over two years. The spark by its very nature is meant to be short lived, thereafter there is only more of doing right by each other and that they both have and likely always will.

"I don't find myself longing for her company. In the early days, I would rush home from work because I wanted to be with her. I'd call her for no reason at all. I think I am a fairly normal man doing everything it takes to make a marriage happy and she appreciates everything I do.Yet I sense that she craves a quality of companionship that I am not able to provide. Maybe the institution of marriage does not support the dream of companionship that people have when they get into it. It is almost as if after a while the company once so longed for turns loathsome"

Women are known suffer from post partum blues often testing the strength of the marriage and their husband's ability to tolerate. A's post-fatherhood change is harder to understand. I have known him long enough to know he is fundamentally decent and would never to anything to disrespect the woman he is married to. But to see an old friend at once a delighted parent and drifting from a still new marriage was hard to comprehend. One day his little girl will grow up and go away to live her own life - the coolness from the absence of spark would by then become permafrost. I was not sure if A expected too little from his life or was way more pragmatic than most people who expect life long companionship to result from marriage.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Fine Line

X.J Kennedy's poem Seven Deadly Virtues makes you think about the fine diving line between vice and virtue. What he says of good cheer is rather disturbing for anyone who has been through periods of despondency:

Good Cheer
When grief and gloom are what you want, good cheer is nothing but a big pain in the rear.

I have known how it takes an effort to get excited about the beautiful weather outside, leave the familiar confines of the well worn couch to make the best of what the day has to offer. I don't know that I have wanted "grief and gloom" at times like this, but have lacked what it takes to bring "good cheer" on spontaneously.

The craving for uninterrupted quietness and to be left alone was far more than any desire to seize the day. I suffered knowing that my mood would permeate J's diminishing her natural joie de vivre, that I would feel guilty long after for it. I would want to undo that day, that hour, have made some happy memories with my child.

But when the neighbor's kid knocked on the door to ask "Mommy wants to know if you and J would like to come watch my soccer game", something inside snapped as if the strands of gloom were ripped apart by an unexpected burst of happiness - the smiling face of a little girl who wanted me to become part of her day.