Thursday, April 30, 2009

Memories Within Reach

YouTube has made indulging in nostalgia a little too easy. Bands and songs I remember from my adolescence can be recalled in as long as it takes to type the words to search them with. I had this large mixed tape collection - several of them were made by me but a lot were gifts too. Then there were tapes bought to celebrate a special day or given to me to remember a person or memory by. I lost almost all of them in my many transits across continents and cities - they had become the unintended jetsam of my nomadic existence.

I mourned their loss for months because I had long wanted J to have it all - it was a wish much older than J is. But YouTube has stepped in to more than fill the void left in the wake of my misplaced mixed tapes. I just need to recall music in my memory and J can listen to it right away. We start with one song and it reminds me of several others. J has no idea what is going to play next so she is often surprised and delighted.

I have stopped missing my collection of mixed tapes - it had never been so effortless to go from Neil Diamond, to Doris Day, to Anne Sophie Mutter, to Osibisa, to The Ventures by way of Manna Dey, Abba,Duran Duran, Kanika Banerjee, Yo-Yo Ma, Ron Goodwin, Ananda Shankar, Rashid Khan, Bee Gees, Kishore Kumar, The Three Tenors and the songs from Roja all within an hour. Such is the tangled web of musical memories that is effortlessly unraveled by YouTube.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Technology Pultizer

I have blogged about my enthusiasm for Politifact's concept and delivery before and was very happy to read that it was awarded the Pulitzer recently. Politifact is unlike the other finalists in the category in that it is more software application and web-design than it is pure writing. So, in a sense this would be a Pulitzer for the technology which enables getting the facts out to the readership in a simple yet compelling manner.

I wonder if they will come up with a category in the future to recognize thought leadership in technology specially where it intersects with those it already does. It could become a highly coveted incentive to excellence (as the prize is described), a way to stand head and shoulders above the crowd. It is one thing to land in the best part of the Magic Quadrant and quite another to have your application or solution bag a Pulitzer. There is a very different ring to "Pulitzer-winning" prefixed to a piece of software. You want to look at it a little closer. Some might even be more willing to trust this endorsement than that of pricey research and advisory firms.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Infallible

Each one of us has some unique talents that help us be in control of certain aspects of our lives. Some have more of these talents than the average and therefore live a higher than average quality of life. It is helpful for those who are blessed with more to share their wisdom with the rest of us that we may improve where we lack. But sometimes how this wisdom is shared does more harm than good.

D is a desi mom like myself. She came here as a grad student at a time when very few Indian women did so. A few years later, she went home to get married and brought her husband to America on a dependent visa.They both teach at an university and have a really bright daughter who is now in grad school. I got to know D through my family a few years ago. They thought she could be the big sister abroad that I don't have and I had no problem with that arrangement.

I would call her every once in a while to seek her opinion on matters related to J - pediatrician, day-care, kindergarten, PTA, parenting questions among other things. D would be invariably polite and share her own experiences on the issue at hand but not intrude elsewhere.

As I started learning the ropes of mothering while desi and in America, I found that I could usually solve my own problems. I must have at some point transitioned from mundane questions on child-rearing to more challenging ones. In the process, it must have become evident to D that I had reasonable mothering skills and there was little that she could say that would dramatically ease or improve things for me.

It was at this point in our relationship that D started to trivialize the challenges I have to contend with being a single parent in small town America without a network of family and close friends to support me day to day. Her attitude was that single moms are dime a dozen in America and not a good excuse for parenting lapses - I and not my marital status was the root cause of all the problems I faced.

She would encourage me to follow her example of volunteering for at least two days a week to build my social network. I was also told to be much more involved in the PTA - she attended every meeting and signed up for everything that she could possibly help with.

I needed to get J involved in sports - something she claimed she could do magically if J so much as visited her for a couple of days. This about a kid who has never shown interest in any physical activity except dance and swimming. I listened patiently trying to imagine the impossible - J outfitted for karate or a game of soccer. Of course miracles can happen without any a single athletic gene from either parent.

Advise now came fast and furious and on subjects that I had not sought any on. J's emotional and physical health, cooking, housekeeping, appropriate behavior in social situations to name a few in a long list. D had this compulsive need to emphasize that she was head and shoulders above me as a person, a mother and a member of society and I was failing to make the grade in all areas.

I have no doubt that D is a very talented woman and has quite a few if not most aspects of her life in control. While her wisdom is greatly appreciated, it would be much easier to digest and assimilate if it were tempered with a generous dose of empathy and an acceptance of her own fallibility - as perfect as she is D is still human. The more strident D becomes in establishing her credentials as a parent, woman, desi in America and more, the less use I seem to have for them.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Google Way

A lot has been and continues to be written about Google's unique management style. If you are not living under a rock, chances are that you have heard or read about the free food, the swank childcare facilities, the freedom to pursue a personal project for 20 % of the time, the grueling hiring process and more that Google is about. Even with all being common knowledge, Bernard Girard's book The Google Way is a excellent addition to your library because the author does a lot more than rehash what makes Google so different from any other company.

Girard tackles many facets of Google's unconventional culture and management style beginning with the hiring of Eric Schmidt and the subsequent three-way sharing of power at the top and the use of the Dutch-auction to go public all the way to its somewhat "extreme" hiring process. He analyzes how each of these strategies work out for Google and what if anything another company many learn from that success.

Girard's tone is very balanced and objective. He does not see Google has having figured out a way to be successful (and profitable) under all circumstances. He leavens his considerable enthusiasm and admiration for the Google Way with a healthy dose of caution. At one point he likens Google to a magnet which inherently attracts iron shavings - he uses this analogy to explain why top technical talent gravitates towards Google despite the long entry process and for not the best salaries in the industry.

That description along with the Marrisa Mayer (Google's VP of Search Products and User Experience) quote about Google being like a Swiss Army knife the clean, simple tool you want to take everywhere are possibly the most transferable lessons from the Google Way to any other industry.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Melting Pots

Xenophobia would be far too strong a term to describe the kind of prejudice, lack of warmth and indifference I have experienced as a minority is many parts of America. When I read this article where Ireland is described as a Xenophobic melting point, I realize that it does say something about my immigrant experience in America.

You could throw in a bunch of interesting and independently wonderful ingredients into a stew pot and have the end product come out tasting quite nasty simply because they did not blend and harmonize well together. That is what would come out of a xenophobic melting pot as well.

You will have a myriad of cultures represented by their little strip mall grocery stores and restaurants along with an occasional place of worship. There is some commerce and traffic from the mainstream into all of these places but the process of blending and assimilation either does not happen or is left incomplete. In the stew/soup analogy these would be all the ingredients that don't belong in the recipe and as a result don't end up making the whole richer than the sum of the parts.

Indeed, sometimes they stand out like aberrations that would serve the soup so much better by not being there at all and would provoke the prejudice that immigrants often experience abroad. Unfortunately, in an immigrant situation removing the out of place ingredients is not as easily done. So you have to make do with this concoction that tastes somewhat odd and the taste rankles the palate.

The other kind of melting pot would be one where foreigners and their cultures imbue the mainstream with a distinct flavor but also takes on enough of its form and texture to not stand out as a completely distinct entity. I have experienced this in certain parts of America.This is the kind of melting pot most immigrants dream of finding themselves in a foreign country. However, due to lapses on both sides of the equation, the ideal is very hard to realize.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Left For Dead

I have written quite a bit on this blog on the state of education in America from my vantage point as a elementary schooler's mother. While fretting over the lack focus on academics, I have neglected to notice all that I take for granted. The teacher's I have known are unfailingly attentive to a child's physical well-being and will alert the parent promptly should something go even slightly wrong.

Reeti Roy in her first guest post for my blog, writes about two student deaths - one in an Indian school and another in a reputed Engineering institute, resulting from criminally negligent teachers.

Seventeen year old Aakriti Bhatia’s parents are devastated. The Class XII Student of Modern School, Vasant Vihar, Delhi died of an asthma attack on the 22nd of April, 2009. Even though the parents, friends and relatives of Aakriti say that Aakriti could have been saved had it not been for the school’s negligence, the school stands its ground saying that it did all it could. At around ten A.M, Aakriti complained of breathlessness but by the time she reached the hospital, it was too late.

The doctors declared her dead upon arrival and added that she could have been saved had she been brought in earlier. The parents of Akriti Bhatia want the Principal, Goldy Malhotra to resign with immediate effect. Bhatia’s father has gone on to say on record that he will go to the President of India if he has to. Even though he has lost a daughter, he does not want others to suffer the same plight.

Exactly a month ago, on March 22nd 2009, a 21 year old boy from IIT Kharagpur died after he fell off a rickshaw. This threw light on the fact that the campus was ill-equipped and medical facilities were not easily and readily available.

Rohit Kumar, an engineering student, was heading back to his hostel when he fell off from the rickshaw near the hostel gate and complained of pain. He went to B.C Roy technology hospital and he was kept under observation for three hours but Rohit’s friends claim that that the doctors did nothing. His friends tried to take him to the nearest hospital possible but Rohit started vomiting blood. Rohit was declared dead upon arrival at Midnapore Medical College.

The two incidents are uncannily similar. Isn’t it time for some hard questions to be asked? These are not isolated cases. And here, I am only talking about the urban elite. Both Modern School and IIT are top notch institutions. If they can guarantee academic excellence why can they not look after their wards? Despite having the funds, what were these institutions doing? If this is the plight of the so-called "elite" schools, what is happening in the "not-so-elite" schools?

In Aakriti’s case, the school authorities said that there had been a nebulizer and they showed the media a nebulizer. However, according to a student of Modern School, the oxygen was cut off when Aakriti was gasping for help out of desperation and breathlessness.

In case of Rohit, it was his friends to took the initiative of rushing him to the hospital. He was supposed to be taken to the Calcutta Hospital but because he started vomiting blood, he was taken to the Midnapore Hospital.

“ The Medical Facilities in case of an emergency situation is horrible. It is almost zilch. Many people do not go to B.C Roy when they fall ill. I personally had quite a bad experience in my first year. I had an upset stomach as a result of which I lost body fluids.They called an Ambulance and took me to the hospital. And the hospital treated me for high blood pressure, while I was on the verge of fainting. While I would not directly blame the college authorities, I think that since they are the ones who have the funds, they should be held responsible for the lack of facilities,” a source said.

This paints a really bleak picture of what can happen to students if they fall sick. One can only hope that these two horrific incidents will make the authorities wake up and take charge. Only, if they were more careful, such incidents could have been easily avoided.

(Sources: The Telegraph, http://www.oneindia.in/ )

Reeti Roy is a twenty year old student studying English Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She can be reached at reeti.roy@gmail.com and at her blog.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sisterhood

Read three articles all centered around exploitation of women but had little in common other than that. The first one was about the custom of force-feeding girls in order to make them ready for the marriage market - not much unlike the preparation of foie gras or veal. This gives the meaning of treating women like cattle or commodity a whole new layer of meaning.

The next story was about corrective rape to "cure" the sexual orientation of lesbians. This one is probably about male anger at what they might view is female subversion against their traditional domination. The last one is about "rape-lite" (a term I was not familiar with). The author describes it thusly :

It's when rape isn't proper rape, but rather sex a woman (probably a drunk, out-of-control woman) allowed to happen, but then feels she must "whine" about, when really she should "put up or shut up", chalk it down to experience (or so she is made to feel).

The victims in the last story are nothing like their sisters in the two previous ones but there is a great deal of shared sisterhood in the pattern of exploitation, victimization, abuse and finally the lack of adequate recourse. So whether she is a child bride in Mauritania, a lesbian in South Africa or a urban woman in London, there can and will be those times when their lives intersect at a single point. It is where all factors turn irrelevant except the most important one - that they all have XX chromosomes. In a minute all the gains our gender has achieved in hundreds of years is all but wiped out - the clock is reset on us and we have to start over.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Falling Behind

Given my experience with J's kindergarten, I have frequently toyed with the idea of pulling her out of school (at least partially) by the fifth grade if not sooner. It seems the gains by way of social interaction and team-work (and play) are more than outweighed by the mediocre quality of instruction coupled with meaningless distractions and the lack of any real academic rigor.

The fun and games approach to education is great up to a point - specially with young children, as long as the kids are prepared to work harder later on. Somehow, that spirit is not fostered. The emphasis on fun proves too strong to wear off when it must to make way for a the more serious business of getting an education.

Reading Tom Friedman's article in NYT confirms what I have believed to be true about the average American public schools - based on my very limited exposure to and experience with the system. He cites a report by McKinsey :

Actually, our fourth-graders compare well on such global tests with, say, Singapore. But our high school kids really lag, which means that “the longer American children are in school, the worse they perform compared to their international peers,” said McKinsey.

There are millions of kids who are in modern suburban schools “who don’t realize how far behind they are,” said Matt Miller, one of the authors. “They are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs — not $40 to $50 an hour.”

That is precisely what I fear too. By when J's generation enters the workforce, they will all need to compete for jobs globally. It would simply not work to be ranked "25th out of the 30 in math and 24th in science", if a child is hoping to make a living in a line of work that requires a strong foundation in those subjects.

There is always the chance that J becomes the underwater basket weaver par excellence and can pay the bills just with that skill. Should that not come to pass, she would need a dependable Plan B to fall back on. I really don't see that coming out of the standard issue public school education in this country.

Some parents of my acquaintance have rearranged their whole lives and careers around a high-quality school - they do exist but are more exception than norm. The familiar refrain is they would love to take the DIY route if they had the luxury of time - and if the family could survive on a smaller income. Unfortunately, these above par schools are usually in neighborhoods that are very expensive to live in. So, a reduced income is often not a viable option.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Coping Devices

Trying to find a mate at thirty plus can be difficult business but Emily Bracken has ten innovative strategies to deal with the problem. Desperate situations (if being single at over thirty can be thus described) probably warrants such desperate measures.

What I enjoyed about several of her ideas is how she combines the off-the-wall with the almost plausible. Posting a fictive missed connection on Craigslist is not something that would require severe mental derangement to consider doing and yet it does not count among the most "normal" things in the world to do.

In the early days of me turning suddenly single, I felt a certain depth of despair and urgency to correct my situation. I had to meet someone I could spend the rest of my life with - and this had to happen in short order. Since I was already a mother, the biological clock was not a factor - but time ticked uncomfortably loud all the same. Sometimes that state of mind led me into situations that I would not be able to explain or rationalize today. The daily grind has this amazing power of blunting the intensity of pain and longing until you almost forget that it exists.

I remember a girlfriend once exhorting me to go grocery shopping on Friday evenings because many other singles are likely to be there too. Maybe I would bump into "the one" in the fresh produce section. What better indicator of compatibility than a common taste in zucchini.Her idea sounded as far-fetched to me as some Bracken's do but she swore by the efficacy of it. It is entirely possible that folks have done "wackier" things to meet someone and have had success.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Misplaced Identity

On the commute back from work, I heard this infomercial spot on a local radio station that made me wonder if J's pediatrician might really be a dog trainer. The woman on the radio introduced herself as a celebrity dog trainer.

As far as I understand, this describes an individual who has made a career out of training dogs owned by celebrities. I am not aware that there are professional "child trainers" - celebrity or otherwise. So anyway, this woman is on the air giving listeners a quick tip on housebreaking toy-dogs or other dogs that weigh less than 15 pounds.

She advises dog-owners to put food in the bowl for the dog and let it sit there for no more than twenty minutes. If the dog eats great otherwise its tough luck for him. The food will be taken away and the next window of opportunity will come around only at the next meal time. The idea is to reinforce to the dog that meal time occurs at a certain frequency and lasts no more than 20 minutes each time. She goes on to add that allowing food to be available all day for the dog to eat is certainly not going to result in a house-broken dog.

Now to J's pediatrician. If you replace dog with child, there is absolutely no difference in the advise she offered me as far as getting J to fuss less and eat better. I refused to pay any attention to the doctor and kept following J around the house with food, as she occupied herself with a variety of activities - dancing, singing, playing, jump-roping, reading, hiding under the blanket to name a few. I did not give up with the last morsel of food was put into her mouth and her stomach was full. The process took between one to two hours setting me dangerously outside the recommended "twenty minute" window.

Her doctor, told me in no uncertain terms that I was doing the worst thing possible by letting J get away with such blatantly non-compliant behavior - soon she would be trying to push the limits in other areas of her life to see if I would cave in similarly and let her have her way. In short, I was making sure J would never be "house-broken" or learn how to eat. This was a couple of years ago. I am glad to report that J is not nearly as fussy or fidgety at meal times as she once used to be. We manage to sit in one place and finish our meal.

It seems to me that the rules for dogs and those for human children might need to be a little different - while both are God's creatures, they are not exactly identical. It was a strange experience listening to a dog-trainer who sounded like she could have easily traded places with J's pediatrician.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Life Beyond Pie

People in the information technology business often encounter Excel experts who revel in showing off their superior charting and graphing skills to those lacking comparable facility with the application. While I am very impressed that they are able to get as much as they are able to with it, I can safely say I have seen one pie-chart too many that conveyed zero information.

This article talks about better visualization and notes that a chart (pie or otherwise) is sometimes not nirvana.

Above all, we should remember that throwing data into a chart is not always the route to greater understanding. Says Spence: “There is a place for tables in the world.”

I could not agree more. Mashable's post on some cool data visualization tools is worth checking out for anyone who is curious about life beyond the pie and other graphing cliches.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Schizoid Indentity

The racial stereotyping in children's literature Mitali Perkins refers to is possibly less evident in books at J's reading level but it is useful for me to learn this is something I should watch out for as she matures. I do like the questions Perkins challenges readers to think about as they read works of fiction set in multi-racial, multi-ethnic milieus. Who better qualified than a second generation immigrant to call attention for the need of a candid discussion about race.

She begins her article citing the oft-repeated manifestations of the schizoid identities that children of new immigrants have to live and deal with. Each time I read something that is at least in part provoked by this whole dichotomous existence business, I have to wonder why root cause is so seldom addressed. The problem is not with the kids growing up having to grapple with two disparate identities. Instead, it is about parents who have not been able or willing to reconcile two worlds and cultures for themselves and their families.

The way the kids turn out is a symptom of a malaise that has little to do with them and much to do with their parents. The idea is somehow that parents simply cannot make the attitudinal and cultural adjustments they must in order for their children to experience some homogeneity between the world inside and outside their homes.They have done their part by immigrating and suffering all consequent hardships - it seems one cannot in good conscience expect them to do any more than that.

It is therefore okay for them to shut their families into little enclaves of native community and culture rendering it impossible for the kids to feel at home in the country of their birth, less feel one with its culture. The kids are forced to over-extend and over-compensate to fit in working against the huge drag force created by their parents. As a result, these kids grow up fitting in (or not) with varying degrees of success depending on their individual characteristics.

Should the adults in the equation not be held to a higher standard ? If they make the conscious decision emigrate to a country whose culture is very dissimilar to their own, they might also want to take responsibility and go the necessary distance to make the experiment work out for their kids who had no part or vote in the decision. It is simply not adequate or even conscionable for parents to portray themselves as martyrs who scarified at the altar of a better life for their kids and be absolved of all further responsibility.

Yet that is exactly what a majority of new immigrants tend to do and transmit their racial, ethnic and cultural anxieties on to their children to resolve. When these kids grow up they end up writing angst-ridden dissertations and/or works of fiction on their condition of divided identities instead of asking the tough questions they should ask their parents. If their angst is significant enough they may even become a Russel Peters.

By doing any and all of these things, they become part of the problem instead of the solution.Instead of breaking the cycle, they help perpetuate it. By asking parents to take more responsibility and answering the question "How" they could do so, adult children of immigrant parents can effectively challenge every new immigrant to do what it takes to resolve the issues of race, culture and ethnicity with some coherency instead of placing the onus on young kids largely ill-equipped to deal with them.

Their schizoid identity is not some kind of fait accompli - there may have been ways to prevent it. As a FOB parent, I often feel I am the one most in need of help navigating the cultural differences between my countries of birth and domicile. If and when I have my act together, the matter of helping J find her way around her world should become a fairly simple matter.

Sadly, second generation immigrants have no interest in helping FOBs like myself learn the ropes - the community as a whole does not benefit incrementally from their growing-up experience and or their unique vantage point. The Indian stand-up comedian miming their parent's FOB foibles is useless commentary for my demographic as are tomes such as The Namesake.

Intentionally or otherwise, Perkins, Lahiri et al end up stereotyping us FOB parents as gauche, clueless retards with thick accents and odd mannerisms who are a source of acute embarrassment to our children. While this makes for good entertainment, it is hardly the education FOB parents could use to make life easier for their kids.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Home Advertising

The trend of the future is apparently home-advertising as in allowing ads to be posted in your living space in return for free rent or WiFi. It does not seem like such a terrible idea at first blush - we already have cable television and on-line ads in our personal space.

I like to believe that I am pretty resistant to any and all manner of inducement to buy something. Unless I want it, I simply don't buy it. Period. That said, I have not had a Cola-Cola ad beamed in my kitchen on a hot summer afternoon to really test my resolve. But it is the more futuristic ambitions of this form of ad-encroachment that is worrisome. The author writes :

Three sleepless nights would lead to ads for insomnia remedies flashing through the hallway. Persistent raids on the fridge would drive promos for snacks or weight-loss centers.

While I like millions of others, have traded my "privacy" for the preferred customer cards that most grocery stores require to avail their specials, I guess I would draw a line at being monitored and targeted for ads based on activities inside my own home. The insomnia remedy and weight-loss suggestions seem harmless when you consider some of the other possibilities.

But given the right inducement, people might just succumb to bringing ads into their home, submit to being monitored and profiled so they can be coaxed to buy goods and services. In the end it is about the what the individual needs to give up their privacy and also if they have comfort in numbers - when enough people sign for such a thing, the chances of any one person feeling weired out are greatly minimized. A combination of factors could determine the tipping point - how enticing the compensation for giving up your privacy is and how many people allow themselves to be targets of this kind of advertising.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Toffee Hunt

It must have been at least a couple of years ago, when a vendor who was service provider to the client I consulted for at the time gave me a box of toffees as a holiday gift. I loved the treat but misplaced the empty box before I had a chance to check out the label - for future reference. Ever since, I have been craving that taste. The taste of toffee have triggered a torrent of nostalgia because it took me back to my childhood - the taste reminiscent of both the Lacto Bonbons that used to be available in India at the time and also of my favorite desi sweets Sohan Halwa.

How something called the English toffee could resemble two of these two very unlike things was beyond me but it was a taste that set off an sharp bout of food craving. Ever since, I have been on the lookout for toffee - or that specific toffee. In the candy isles of grocery stores, gift-shops and sometimes even on-line. I did not want to experiment in the toffee family but sought the exact thing that I had tasted before. Not knowing what it was called made the search a little complicated to say the least.

There are many recipes to make toffees at home but I don't suppose I have any superior talent at candy-making than I have at baking (of which the less said the better). So, I suffered toffee-lust silently and never ran into a package that even remotely resembled my holiday gift. If you want something long and earnestly enough, it does come to you in end - and it so was with me and toffee.

A few days ago,while looking for a pair of sunglasses to replace my currently broken ones, I set sight on what had eluded me for close two years - a package of Cary's Gourmet English Toffee. I bought one without further ado and to appease J who decided that she may not like the taste of "this toffee thing", I ended up getting her some Lindt Truffles. In all, it was worth the wait for me.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Living Now

When you consider this post about the emerging power of real-time web alongside your everyday experience of people fiddling with their cellphones without respite like they had an obsessive compulsive disorder, you wonder if empowering the real-time web any further would end the last vestige of normalcy in our networked, over-clocked, connected and always-on lives.

The traditional wisdom has been to live in the moment and to savor it fully. Being connected to a real-time feed of news, information, gossip and commentary could be one interpretation of "living in the present moment" but it is probably not what The Buddha had in mind when he said "As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life" or "Life can take place only in the present moment.If we lose the present moment, we lose life" (quotes from Chapter 3 Romancing the Present from the book Timeless Wisdom compiled by Gary W. Fenchuck)

When I read those words of wisdom, I imagine slowing down, pausing long enough to feel the gentle passage of time even while getting the days work done. Listening to the birdsong of dawn give way to to the empty hollowness of a summer afternoon relieved by a sudden splash of rain. To have been able to enjoy all of this while being grateful for what you have in life and also for that which you do not have. That sounds like life taking place in the present moment and a strong awareness of it.

Hooking up to a Twitter feed to keep a pulse on the up-to the minute news of the world, text messaging three people and chatting with a fourth trying to get caught up on the events of their day is not what comes to mind. That would be "losing the present moment" and by transference "losing life" itself. If a Google monopoly really means that we will have little ability to dip into the real-time web and partake of its many bounties, I would guess that is a good thing. Maybe it will force us to focus on the moment and let go of our lives entirely.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Solitude

In his article The End of Solitude, William Deresiewicz writes :

Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn't say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can.

I could not agree more. There are some holdouts who are continue to stay away from whole-scale immersion in media that provides constant connectivity. They still use their phones and computers as utility and not entertainment devices, they are able to get from the Internet what adds value to their lives without allowing the virtual to take over the real.

But this is increasingly a rare species and often older in age. Sooner than later, they will become extinct. Most young people of today as Deresiewicz correctly points out have never known solitude and as such have use or little appreciation for it. His quote from Emerson explains why solitude is so important for youth :

Solitude, Emerson said, "is to genius the stern friend." "He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions." One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wages And Popularity

I enjoyed reading Freakonomics a few years ago and have since checked in on the eponymous blog occasionally. Reading this post about the correlation between popularity in high school and wage earnings in the future prompted me to validate the finding against my own experience.

Some of the most popular kids when I went to high school were the captain of the school's cricket team, the popular female lead in the annual theatrical production and so on. While academic excellence did make waves - the well-rounded kid was the one who was the most admired. I am not sure how our talented leading lady has fared in life but most of the other popular kids are doing fairly well.

The same rules however have not applied to popularity in engineering school (at least in my experience). Many of my peers who are doing very well in their careers today were virtually unknown names on campus. The stars of the day seem to have faded now. I had to wonder why the same rules don't apply for popularity in college. One commentator made just the point I have about this study.

I am surprised that the figure they calculated was only 2%. To me, this is more likely to reinforce the position that nothing about social life in high school really matters down the road.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Convenient Arrangements

NYT's recent article on sugar-daddy situations arranged on-line, makes for very interesting reading. A woman who has had multiple sugar-daddies has the following to say about the choice she has made :

“I could go out and work three jobs and still go to school and probably make decent grades, but is that really what I want to do? I make more money this way, and I have a lot more fun because I get to go out to concerts, go shopping, see movies and make money off of it. If instead of this I was just dating a rich guy, it’d be almost the same thing, and society wouldn’t look down on that. You know with a sugar daddy that they’re spending a lot of money on you and they clearly want something in return, but is that really any different than how it is with a boyfriend?”

It is actually hard to argue with that line of reasoning. The modern day romantic relationship is not as much about courtship or romance as it is about physical intimacy which serves as a proxy for the more durable (and therefore harder to come by) true emotional connection.

Then there is the sugar-daddy's rationale for doing what he does. The article cites the example of one of them as follows :

He has an almost mathematical approach to assessing relationships, and once even computed the costs for a girlfriend, mistress, prostitute and wife — mistresses turn out to be most expensive by the hour; wives, by the year; girlfriends are cheapest all around. But he’s not as calculating as he seems. In fact, he concluded there’s little correlation between cost and quality. Still, he is relentlessly searching for an algorithm that will predict relationships’ success.

The only way to reclaim modern day relationships that have like everything else fallen prey to monetization and commoditization, seems to be to revive the element of pure romance in it once again. It does seem like a truly sad state of affairs when it hard to tell dating apart from prostitution, because from a woman's perspective they don't feel all that different. It makes perfect sense then for a man to calculate costs for different relationship modes and choose the one that offers him the best return on investment.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Indian Bovines

I have no comment or input of value on the scientific accuracy of the article but am definitely impressed that the 283 million burping and belching cows of India have merited an article in Time magazine. So what if they did not make the cover page, though one hopes that would be the logical next step for our nation's ubiquitous bovine - the strength in numbers cannot be underestimated.

Now that these hapless creatures have been identified as a big contributor to the global warming problem, you wonder what lifestyle adjustments might be required of them to minimize their deleterious effects on the environment - if it may be mandated they ingest chemicals that would turn the methane they are currently emitting into something less noxious. Obviously dealing with a bunch of cows is a lot easier than getting millions of human beings to reduce their carbon footprints.

I can't imagine any of this is good news for the Indian cows or for the consumers of their milk the yield of which is enhanced by putting the cows on a diet "urea-molasses-mineral blocks". That sure does not conjure up the image of a cud-chewing ruminant, grazing peacefully on rolling acres of green - though the purveyors of dairy products would love for us to buy into just that imagery.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Two Poems

Read two poems on marriage and parting by death in the Spoon River Anthology that could not be more unlike each other despite having identical themes. Nothing could be truer of marriage - it can be one person's heaven and the other's hell. It is hell for Ollie McGee

But what think you gnaws at my husband's heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!
These are driving him to the place where I lie.
In death, therefore, I am avenged.

and heaven for Sarah Brown

Wrought out my destiny — that through the flesh
I won spirit, and through spirit, peace.
There is no marriage in heaven,
But there is love.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Thousand Words

Saw this graphic on Flickr with a title that made me stop to consider what it might be saying. It has always taken me concerted effort to remain in the present though the days whirl by at dizzying pace. I must exist in the moment but live in either the past or the future. This light-cone representation of time past, present and future clearly spoke to my own relationship with the passage of time and life itself.

The present is intensely focused, a point where the actions from the past converge to an outcome.However, what happens at that point is very similar day after day and leads to a sense of stagnation. The past in comparison, is like the horizon line - you can chase after it forever and never quite reach there. Events morph and change with each recollection, take up more room than they had originally occupied, become imbued with meaning and significance that they had never possessed. Likewise, the future extends into a wide cone of possibilities - formed out of present actions, hopes dreams and desires.

I can see the farthest peripheries of the future cone more gossamer and faded out representing wishes that may be borne out or not whereas the center being more solid and substantial - a place determined directly by present actions, a place I might have some degree of control over. A picture is sometimes truly worth more than some hundred words.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Odd Lapse

I had a strange and somewhat disturbing experience last week. Every week, I login to my bank account to make sure there is enough in my checking account to pay the checks I have signed recently. I have had this account for over five years and have followed this routine for about the same period of time. I thought my account number was by now imprinted in my brain because I have typed it so many times. Just like you don't forget your name, phone number or address you don't forget a number you see and use so frequently.

So this past Friday, when I was at the website trying to login, my mind suddenly blanked out the account number. I was able to remember some digits but not the whole number. It was as if parts of it has been erased from my memory. After ten failed attempts to log in, I gave up in disturbed state of mind. Was this a problem with memory going spread to other areas of my life and come about just as unexpectedly ? Would I fail to remember things that I take for granted ?

I worried about my strange lapse of memory all day even as I tried to steer my mind away from it and focus on the day's work. One the drive back home, I was thinking about the errant account number once again. I still had trouble believing that I could not remember it. Then at a stop sign a couple of blocks away from home, the number suddenly came back - just as inexplicably as it had disappeared. The parts of it that had been erased had magically reappeared. I now the whole sequence of numbers.

As soon as I reached home, I went on-line to check if I had remembered correctly and I had. It was immensely relieving to say the least but it still did not explain the lapse from earlier in the day. Clearly, my memory needs some help these days and if something as simple as doodling can help, I am all for it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Immigrant Death Spiral

I have been seeing a lot of job requirements coming to my Inbox lately that have in their subject-line "US citizens only" in capital letters. Just in case you missed it there, that statement is repeated in screaming big, bold, underlined font in the first line of the message. These come from recruiters who have me in their database often from many years ago. The skills they are seeking are relatively new technologies so the age group that is most likely to have them would be in the early to mid-twenties. For a really esoteric mix of skills a recruiter will add "Green Cards and Citizens Only. Absolutely no visas (H-1 or EAD)" figuring that compromise will widen the net and result in making a hire more quickly.

I can't help feeling bemused at these emails specially in light of today's tough job market. The immigrants in the technology business who are required to go through what is sometimes a decade long obstacle course to get a Green Card have very limited ability to change jobs or work in cutting-edge technologies. They seek out the safest jobs they can which are usually also the ones where investment in technology innovation is minimal to absent.

The law requires them to remain in the same position and same pay level at which they were originally sponsored by their employer. Should they decide to change either job responsibilities or pay, they will need to restart the permanent residency process, give up their hard-earned spot in the queue. Several Indian and Chinese techies of my acquaintance have been on the same job for close to ten years because they hesitate to rock the boat and derail the entire immigration process. The decision to put roots in America is often at the cost of sacrificing their career aspirations entirely. Yet it is the price many immigrants are willing to pay for the American Dream - in hopes for a better life for their children.

By when these folks do become eligible to apply for jobs that expressly shun all work visas, they no longer have the skills necessary to qualify for them. Then we have the locals who see little hope of making a viable career in the technology business given the rampant outsourcing culture in corporate America. Why would they go into deep student loan induced debt in the process of getting a degree in computer science if they are almost guaranteed to be displaced by a foreign worker within a few years.

So, with protectionism at work these days and recruiters giving in to the popular "hire local" sentiment, the quest for this Unicorn that is an US citizen and has the right skills for a high technology job becomes quite an ordeal. After a while, I will start to get emails with the same job requirements that will say EADs (a temporary work permit that is given to those who are waiting in line to get a permanent residency card to be alloted to them. This wait can be as long as ten years today is likely to grow even longer) are acceptable and if even that fails it will slide down further to allow the much maligned H1s - the favorite punching bag for any and all anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Even after doing all that, given the severe (and often punitive) employment restrictions on H1 visa holders, chances are that the companies seeking these skills would have to do one of two very unpalatable things, get someone younger and possessing the right technology skills and experience from a different country on a brand new H1 visa or send the job offshore. Neither option is particularly helpful to the jobless citizens of this country or to those who aspire to become its citizens at some point.

This combination of unfortunate circumstances - the tethering of H1s to their sponsoring employer in what frequently becomes a decade long death trap, the inhumanely long and painful permanent residency process and close to no incentive for locals to consider education and career in technology - helps create an unending death spiral.

It consists of yet more job displacement, yet more new immigrants being added to the hopper who then line up for permanent residency choking up an already broken and dysfunctional system; the addition of newly minted permanent residents and citizens who have been hobbled by the immigration system to the point where they are ineffective in regenerating America with talent and innovation. This whole system is a travesty of justice and fair-play in more ways than can be counted and renders the premise of American meritocracy completely unsustainable.

This article was first posted on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Changing With Tide

Reading these lines from an Economist article on the prospects of India and China made me think what a feckless thing political ideology is :

It used to be a platitude of Western—and Marxist—analysis of China that wrenching economic change would demand political reform. Yet China’s economy boomed with little sign of any serious political liberalisation to match the economic free-for-all. The cliché fell into disuse. Indeed, many, even in democratic bastions such as India, began to fall for the Chinese Communist Party’s argument that dictatorship was good for growth, whereas Indian democracy was a luxury paid for by the poor, in the indefinite extension of their poverty.

This other article tackles the question of correlation between political and economic freedom with some data going back to 1991 - which seems like a very short window to consider in making any conclusions.

The chart tells a striking story: the countries that are economically and politically free are underper­forming the countries that are economically but not politically free.

The author believes that democracies will loose out to dictatorships in the end because the later are not hamstrung with having to deal with voter preferences and respect for individual freedom. As a result they are able to do what needs to get done without meeting any resistance. It would be interesting to see the charts with a happiness index or some other indicator of quality of life measured alongside the two freedoms. Maybe the results would be a little different leading perhaps to a more nuanced conclusion.

Monday, April 06, 2009

First Love

This article advocating that people should forget their first love so all relationships following it are not ruined has commentators from across the spectrum from experience weighing in. Those who married their first love and are still married and in love with them, those who have not been so lucky but have never been able to forget and finally those who have reconnected after many long years only to discover it is just as magical as they remembered it.

There are some contrary voices of those who would love to forget their first love, those who have not felt quite the same after meeting again after many years but they are in the minority. The topic is bound to stir up some strong emotions and mostly from those who have has an intense first relationship. They would be the ones struggling with memories that are impossible to forget even after much trying.

The only way to "forget" is for the relationship to have translated to marriage and allow reality to take over. If not, the memories become frozen in time, more perfect than they had really been because we all want to believe there was this one shining moment in our lives, when we had attained the absolute pinnacle in love.

It would make for a sad life to not have had that experience. To that end, we endow the past and this special person with larger than life qualities. So to ask us to relinquish this thing of perfection is asking for the impossible. It is useful however to acknowledge that the deification of our first love is a thing of our own imagination and therefore should not be confused with expectations from relationships following it. That might be the extent of "forgetfulness" the heart will allow.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Purest Pain

Read these lines from a Ted Hughes poem that were quoted in a news story about suicide of his and Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas Hughes

Your son's eyes.... would become
So perfectly your eyes,
Became wet jewels
The hardest substance of the purest pain

While I do not have the words to so perfectly describe that kind of pain in a child's eyes, I have seen and known such eyes. The image lives with you long after the child has gotten over their sorrow and found things in their life to be happy about, rejoice over. You want to wipe away the last vestige of their sadness if only to erase that imprint from your consciousness and often you don't have what it takes to do so.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Cool Factor

Having grown up in India, I am used to seeing the the academically gifted students being treated like super-stars in schools. All eyes are on them when the annual achievement awards are given out. Being a geek never used to be uncool though it did help a lot to be well-rounded specially by when you were in high-school. A nerd without personality was well-respected but did not enjoy the same kind of popularity as someone who had both brains and social skills.

The notion of treating smart kids like they were fringe people is something I am finding out about as I get familiar with the American public school system. J's elementary school runs a variety of sports camps all year long and provides information on where you can sign up your daughter for cheer-leading or baton-twirling training. Come spring there is an ice-cream social followed by a carnival and yet more entertainment. Every once in a while they raise money for a good cause but there is no real community service involved. Sometimes, I forget that I am dealing with a school system and not a hyper-active kid's social network.

Other than displaying the name of the spelling bee winner on the marquee each year, there is little evidence of any academic activities. Since this is considered a "good" school, the teachers are highly focused on making sure that the kids do well on standardized tests. To that end, they will have them review and practice test materials for months on end. Not surprisingly almost everyone scores high on the tests. Recently, the school even won some kind of coveted government recognition.

When you look at the test scores you will be impressed but disappointment kicks in as you get acquainted with the school itself ; unless you equate education to test scores with bonus points for achieving coolness. I have asked around to see if other parents have experienced anything significantly different in their school districts. Sadly, it turns out that I am not in the minority. There are avenues for talented and motivated kids within the system which as a whole flows in an entirely different often contrary direction.Being smart is just not considered very hip in most American public schools.

If you get lucky, you may end up in a "good school district" where there is no stigma or penalty attached to being bright - the kids and the teachers will just leave the child alone as they appear to do in J's school. That is the best case scenario and a very sad one if I may add. You will never hear the fifth grader who made a splash at a state-level science fair being applauded at a PTA meeting. It is like it were a somewhat distasteful matter best kept under wraps.

However, when some kid wins a local gymnastic competition, news travels like wildfire catapulting the kid in question into instant celebrity. I have no problem with athletic talent being lauded as long as academic accomplishments are as well. When you hear all this rhetoric about making American schools globally competitive you wonder if the powers that be consider it important to change perception about academic talent and success as well.

If the geeks (and nerds) are not hero-worshiped a little at least, the system is fated to sink to the lowest common denominator level academically - which is exactly what ails the public schools in this country. It is not about more funding or super-talented teachers. We had little by way of infrastructure and very mediocre teachers back in India but a geek was God in the classroom.

Just that cultural precept helped haul the under-achievers up several notches. Not to say that the system was perfect but it did succeed in imprinting the value of education on everyone and being a high-achiever was anything but uncool. So when Michelle Obama exhorts young girls to start viewing education as cool, she addresses exactly the right issue and it is not a moment too soon.

Mrs. Obama visited an all-girls school in north London on Thursday afternoon. She told the 240 girls about growing up on Chicago's south side, and urged them to think of education as "cool."

"I never cut class. I liked being smart. I liked getting A's," she said. "You have everything you need. Everything you need to succeed you already have right here."

I hope that kids (specially girls) in J's school and elsewhere in the country are listening up because if they do their lives could very well be transformed. It is a great aspirational goal for any young person to become a Harvard educated lawyer. Even if they fall a lot short, they will still end up in a very good place.

It only helps for Mrs Obama to be viewed as a style icon because it is a highly visible proof that a being smart does not preclude being cool or fashionable. I am hoping she is successful on both counts - making smart cool in the schools by her own example and being an independent minded trend-setter in fashion.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Voice Mail Challenged

Reading this NYT article on voice mail becoming passe helped me feel a little better about the 20 odd unheard voice mail messages in my work phone at any given time. I will login and purge the messages every once in a while but VM is possibly the worst way to get my attention. I can do email or chat in a heartbeat and have a great turnaround time with both.

I have thought about my reluctance to check VM messages and come up with the same conclusions as many folks referenced in the article. There is too much time lag, it takes far too many steps to get to the message, some messages are way too long winded and become irrelevant by the time you get to them. Even on my cellphone, when I see a voicemail my first instinct is to call back to see what that person needed. It takes an effort to not do that and check their message instead.

What is more heartening is that VM usage reluctance puts me in the majority :

Research shows that people take longer to reply to voice messages than other types of communication. Data from uReach Technologies, which operates the voice messaging systems of Verizon Wireless and other cellphone carriers, shows that over 30 percent of voice messages linger unheard for three days or longer and that more than 20 percent of people with messages in their mailboxes “rarely even dial in” to check them, said Saul Einbinder, senior vice president for marketing and business development for uReach, in an e-mail message.

What would be helpful though is for VM messages to play on computer or phone on the click of one button with ability to fast forward, skip, rewind and the rest. I used to have a Vonage phone a while ago, and they had a neat VM feature that allowed you to play the VM files online without having to dial a series of numbers. You did have to login to your account though. Taking that idea a few steps further could make VM more relevant and useful to our times.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Magic Connection

It was a crazy day at work but that did not stop Sheila from noticing several women had received bouquets of flowers at work. It was Valentine's Day. Her last meaningful relationship had ended over a year ago and it seemed to have depleted her of the energy to forge a new one.

Sometimes she wondered what Jayant was up to - she missed his once familiar presence in her life like one might miss a well-known sweater when it has been misplaced. Had he found a woman who would not expect emotional closeness in the relationship because he was terrified of it. Was there a woman out there, who never needed to be held close or told that she was loved and cherished, a woman who never felt vulnerable, or cried or needed to be comforted. A woman who did not have her act completely together and sometimes wanted a man to figure stuff out for her. All the things that Sheila had done when she had felt close enough to him to drop her guard, all the things that killed their relationship. Yet Jayant was a good man and she was glad she had met him.

Even if there was such a woman, Sheila thought to herself, she'd likely not be getting any flowers delivered to her at work today. A card with a small hand-written note may be as far as he might go like he had with her. A card wishing her love and happiness in life with or without him. That was like Jayant.

During a late afternoon meeting her phone rang , the discussion paused briefly as she answered. " I am in a meeting now, call me in about four hours when I am at home". The meeting resumed. No one in the room realized the significance of that call to Sheila. No one would know her day had changed in an instant.

"How have you been, Sheila ?" was the first thing Zubin asked when he called her again later that evening.

He was a very dear friend from a long time ago. Zubin had said once to her "I adore you" and to Sheila that had been far more profound than any florid expression of love and passion could ever be. She had noticed the use of the word adore instead of love. He did want to convey the true essence of his feelings through that word - namely "to love in the highest degree; to regard with the utmost esteem and affection; to idolize"

Ten years after their first meeting in their school hallway, they had briefly revisited the issue of defining their relationship and had failed to come up with one that easily translated to marriage. Through the ebb and tide of love in both of their lives, they had held on to each other for support and guidance. Zubin had married a few years ago and was now a dad.

It had been a year since he had last called. Zubin's wife did not know about Sheila. "She would not understand our friendship and I am not doing anything that requires an explanation. You know Sheila, in marriage it is best not to know some things about your spouse. My wife may have things in her life that I would rather not know - it would be too complicated for her to explain. As long as I don't know I would have no gnawing questions. I prefer it that way" he would say.

He called her when it was convenient for him to do so. They conversation drifted from one thing to another in ways that would seem disjointed to an outsider but was very natural and familiar to them. For the several hours that these phone calls lasted, they were both teenagers once again. There was nothing that rejuvenated Sheila nearly as much as a call from Zubin.

"When are you planning a trip to India ?" he asked. "I am not sure but I remember I promised I will stop by at Ankara to meet you." Sheila replied alluding to a promise made many years ago when they were both single. "Good, I wanted to make sure you had not forgotten" Zubin said. "But what about your wife ? I am guessing she is still not aware of my existence" Sheila asked. "No she is not. I'll put you up at a hotel, so don't worry about that" Zubin said.

"Now, that sounds really scandalous. Imagine a friend of your wife's seeing us together at a hotel. It's like pretending to have an affair when you really are not having one. Is that a legitimate form of thrill-seeking in a marriage ?" Sheila asked laughing.

Zubin laughed as he said "I don't know about thrill seeking. Besides I know how to be discreet. I haven't seen you in over five years and want to meet you. Explaining all this to my wife would be more trouble than it is worth. Look, I don't blame her. If there was this guy who was just a good friend that she was talking to for hours past midnight, I would react just like she would over you if she found out. I bet when you are married you'd feel the same way about your husband and another woman. That is human nature. When you marry someone you become possessive of them, their whole life including a past you were not a part of. We can all be completely rational otherwise but this is one place where rationality fails us completely."

"What happens if she sees your phone bill for this month ?" Sheila asked.

"It is not best that she does not see it ? No husband can ever have a satisfactory answer for why he was talking to a woman for three hours past midnight when his wife was out of town" Zubin laughed.

"Discretion is the better part of valor" Sheila commented.

"Exactly my point" Zubin replied.

He mentioned a chance of him coming to visit his kid sister in San Francisco later in the year. "It will be a short business trip, I will see Persis, swing by to meet you and head back home".

"Are you sure this is a real business trip ?" Sheila teased.

"No, and you know that. It is an excuse to come see you in another country because you are taking forever to come by where I live" he laughed.

"Are you doing anything that you wouldn't want your mother to know about ?" Sheila asked him with mock seriousness.

"It depends on your definition. I can say that I am being the best husband that I can possibly be, have nothing but good things to say about my wife. But marriage seems to have taken something away from my life." he replied.

"I guess I have my answer. So, Zubin tell me the rules of engagement when I get married ?" Sheila asked.

"Between us, you mean ? " he asked.

"Yes. It may be self-evident to us that if we did not do anything when we had all the time and opportunity in the world, so we would not wreck our marriages by trying to have an affair when we are no longer single" Sheila said.

"You are right. That argument just won't fly. For one thing after you get married, I would never call you unless you called me" Zubin said.

"But I never call now you because you are married" Sheila laughed.

"Well, you'd have to email me and we'd have to work something out discreetly" he suggested and they both laughed.

"Now, this is really beginning to sound like a full-blown affair. We are talking arrangements, discretion and hotels with a spouse on the side." Sheila said.

"You are the the most important connection to my adolescent and growing-up years, an incredibly precious part of my life. I would never want to lose that - it would be like losing a whole chunk of myself - that's a lot to give up even for marriage." Zubin said in a voice that sounded more sad than serious.

It was like he was asking her if he was worth as much to her as well, if she would like him go out on a limb for the sake of their old friendship. A friendship that had never become a romantic relationship and yet was an incredibly significant one to both of them - a deep connection that they had never been able to define to themselves and would therefore never be able to explain what they shared to anyone else. As they grew older, they found it easier to admit how they felt about each other - even doing that had been impossible once.

"Do you realize that you called me on Valentine's Day ?" Shiela asked.

" Hey that was totally unintentional. I did not realize that it was the 14th. I have been thinking about you for a few days and wanted to check on you - see how you were doing" Zubin hastened to explain.

"Now you just ruined my day for me" she teased him.

"Happy Valentine's Day to you, Sheila" he said with a smile in his voice that she longed to see.

This was the first time in all the years that they had known each other that he had wished her on Valentine's Day.

"Happy Valentine's Day, Zubin." she replied.

Many years ago saying this to each other would have been a game-changer in their relationship. Today, their friendship was deep enough to allow for such a liberty without altering it in anyway. This was not something his wife could understand. It would only leave her with painful, unresolved questions and doubts if she found out. And yet, Zubin was the man who always said " How much longer are you going to take to find yourself a man to marry ? "

Maybe between Zubin and Sheila there was complete, unconditional love that could not be confined in the traditional structure of marriage. A feeling of blissfulness filled Sheila after she got of the phone with Zubin. This was the kind of magic that is worth more than a few sacrifices.

She wondered about the definition of fidelity in marriage and how circumstances conspired against people to render it pliable over time. Enjoying her company was not cheating in Zubin's book and to protect his wife from hurt feelings, he did so discreetly. Yet in the very process of doing so, he attributed to an other innocent action an air of complete impropriety. It bothered her that he seemed to revel in that thought.

For her part, Zubin was the boy she had grown up with and shared an unique emotional intimacy with that he just did not with his wife. To deny herself the simple pleasure of talking with him to protect the feelings of an unknown woman was a difficult sacrifice to make - she thought she did her part by never writing to him or calling him after he got married.

When he called her once in a very long while, she could not summon the strength not to talk with him - and each time she felt guilty of being in a secret relationship with another woman's husband. There was the undercurrent of unexpressed feelings and an intense attraction that made these conversations so special and therefore also wrong between a married man and another woman.

She tried to place herself in the wife's shoes. She could view Zubin's undiminished emotional attachment to Sheila as far more damaging to their marriage than a one-night stand with a stranger. Neither Zubin nor Sheila would get an credit for keeping their friendship completely platonic for so many years despite all the talk of hotels and discreet arrangements - it had never happened and never would. They both valued their friendship far too much to risk anything like that.

Wouldn't telling your spouse the whole truth about yourself be so much simpler Sheila wondered. Her thoughts went back to Vibha and her husband before they returned to Zubin and his wife. Each friend had told her that ignorance was better and knowledge about one's past life should be shared only on a need to know basis. Often the truth is far too complicated to be told or fully understood. In the end the holy grail of marriage seemed to be peace at all costs. And what a steep cost it was at times. Sheila was not sure that they were right or that was the only way marriages worked. Maybe hers would be different.

In her prayers that night, she wished for more than a miracle in her life - a man she could love all her life and who would also have the generosity of spirit to understand what Zubin meant to her and accept their friendship graciously.

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