Sunday, May 31, 2009

Writing Syllabus

McSweeny's Internet Age Writing syllabus is a wonderfully wise commentary on the state of the art.

Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets glimmer with a complete lack of forethought, their Facebook updates ring with self-importance, and their blog entries shimmer with literary pithiness. All without the restraints of writing in complete sentences. w00t! w00t!

The essay as an art-form has been a lost cause for years now. Non-fiction is usually tedious and repetitious. You can read the introduction and epilogue to know everything you need to know about the book. The chapters in between merely rehash a few themes with no incremental value being added from page to page. Research material is frequently culled from on-line sources that is just a Google search away for the readers.

Used to be that a serious author spent years collecting his material and distilled its essence into a book. Average readers simply did not have the erudition or resources to do what such an author did. With information now being so easily available, data is no longer the exclusive realm of a writer and neither does it make a mark on it's own strength - originality of thought and uniqueness of vision do. However, those qualities are not very common among those who write. Maybe that is all because McSweeny's writing syllabus is already in effect - its being learned or imbibed even not formally taught.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Spelling Bee

As the risk of resorting to a terrible cliche, desi kids winning the Spelling Bee has become as predictable as a cherry on a sundae. It is about yet another contest and yet another desi winner who wants to become a neuro-surgeon when they grow up. We seem to have a little system going there. Blogosphere has been buzzing with desis ruminating on the topic and I figured it would not hurt to thrown my two cents at it.

I don't fully get the point of the Spelling Bee but then I don't get the point of quiz contests or trivia challenges either. It is something desis apparently get and get really good as well. I can understand why I might enjoy watching a figure staking contest or a tennis match - there is deep admiration for the talent the contestants have and amazement at their proficiency. Both are very positive feelings. With a Spelling Bee, my initial reaction is one of concern for the kids who will not win - as a parent I wonder how they will cope with the disappointment after having worked so hard and come so far.

Once, I am over that and get into the groove of things, the contest is like a high stakes, high adrenalin reality show - except the contestants are really young children. If I believed in the concept of the Bee, then enjoying the show would be perfectly legitimate - I would be in awe of the ability of the kids. Since I do not, finding it entertaining is tinged with guilt - I have no right to derive any pleasure out the frenzied efforts of a bunch of tense, totally stressed out kids.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Progressing Disease

This interactive map showing the disappearance of jobs all around America, is nothing short of scary. It reminds me of full color MRI scans of diseased body parts - with the progression from health to disease so pronounced that it simply cannot be missed. Then again when you consider the the short time-line for the series, it is possible that things may not be quite as dire as they appear or at least not trend in a precipitously negative direction forever. If the author's goal has been to extinguish any glimmer of hope that reader may have had about the future, this visual is the perfect vehicle.

For a message of hope and perhaps grace under pressure - a much larger time-line would have helped. It is amazing how the choice of book-ends for a set of data can make all the difference in what gets conveyed - I experience this in my line of work everyday. Numbers can be coaxed until they fit the story that needs to be told. Yet, the very same numbers can suggest many alternative versions of the truth. So, while these maps are particularly disheartening to see, they are likely neither the full story nor a good prognosticator of what is to come.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Seeking Balance

A few weeks ago, I was able to take J to her art class and spend the hour and a half sitting there watching the kids work on their project for the day. Used to be that J got along famously with just about any kid though she always took a little while to warm up to a new person. Since the last several months however, I have been concerned that she does not connect so well with her peers anymore. When I brought this up with her teacher at school, she was quick to tell me that J is well-adjusted and gets along well with everyone. All the kids like her. Basically, I had nothing to worry about. My point that this business of being well-adjusted and well-liked was a little superficial did not mean much to her.

Even with my worries being summarily dismissed, they refused to go away. I have wanted to be a fly on the wall watching J's interactions with her peers. Unfortunately, my schedule rarely allows such opportunities. I got a small one that evening and tried to make the most of it. I noticed that J tries to be nice to whoever she is around - often going the extra distance. If she is on a play-date, she will always go along with what her friend wants. When I have asked her about it she says "What's the point of fighting over it ? We just have less time to play." My worry that she may become a push-over for being so accommodating of others.

She does not say much or call unnecessary attention to herself. The art teacher was asking the kids if they remembered what they had learned about the artist whose work they had discussed in their previous class. J was always the second or the third to raise her hand (if at all) and did not say as much as the other kids even if she knew what was being asked. To any third-person, she would come across as this mild-mannered little girl who was happy to sit on the sidelines watching everyone else. A less than attentive teacher may not notice her at all.

I saw that she paid close attention to others when they spoke and generally looked rather thoughtful. We were the last to leave so J found some time with the art teacher alone. There was a very different personality that showed itself then. She was self-assured and eager to express herself and make her opinions known. This is a whole lot closer to the J I know.

My sense is that being in adult company (mine) for most of the time has made J comfortable around grown-ups. She does not think too much about what she does or says around them - she is her natural self and displays the traits I am used to seeing at home. Around peers, she has a need to understand what would please and meet the approval of the other person before she says or does anything. She takes her time to gauge and when she is done, she behaves in a way that would not offend or threaten this person in any way.

To that end she is the just the kind of kid her buddy P would like to be with and also the kind her other good friend D would like though there is little in common between P and D. So J does well in one-one relationships with peers with whom is she able to find this comfortable space without a lot of effort. In larger groups, J is not quite sure who she must be to make it work out for everyone. It never occurs to her that she is not responsible for figuring that out in the first place. Almost to compensate for this issue she has, J loves to make people laugh - everyone loves the class clown and the purveyor of comic relief does not have to worry as much about striking the right chord with everyone. That might explain her teacher's observation about her being well-liked by the kids in class.

She is constantly trying out her "witticisms" on me and will complain if I don't laugh. When I do find something she says hilarious she points out that her friends would not see what's so funny about it - I am guessing those jokes don't get told to her friends in school. As I observe J in different situations, I realize there is a long road ahead with altogether too many opportunities for making mistakes. The magnitude of my responsibility in raising her to be a happy, confident and sociable human being is quite sobering.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Alternative Movie Review

I heard about this rather amusing site called RunPee on NPR yesterday. It is most helpful to know when to take a break without missing a beat. Then there are those meticulously edited movies that must be watched end to end (almost in a state of breathlessness or suspended animation) to savor fully.

Thanks to all the traffic the site is getting in the wake of the NPR mention, it was hard to browse around. If they don't already have it, they might want to consider ranking movies by number of RunPee moments which would make for an interesting alternative to the traditional movie review. Just one number should tell you the most important thing you need to know about a movie i.e watch it or miss it. A ratio like number of RunPee moments to the duration of the flick should be a good way to stack movies up against each other.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ambition and Ability

While talking of parenting challenges, a desi of my acquaintance told me about her experience getting her son into the gifted and talented program at his public school. Apparently, she coached the kid for close to a year before he took the identification test. Her husband was not convinced that their child was truly gifted and actually frowned upon her efforts to force fit him where he probably did not belong. She persisted because she did not think her son was any less able than a lot of other kids she knew who were in the program. Her efforts paid off - she was rather proud of her accomplishment.

The boy has now acquired the coveted label of "gifted" something that enjoys cachet in desi social circles. Her husband, despite his initial reservations is happy for the kid. I was quick to attribute such over-zealousness to her being desi given our cultural predisposition to push kids a little too hard to achieve academic excellence. I found out that I was very wrong in that assessment.


In NYC for instance, there are coaching centers that prepare 6-7 year old kids for the OLSAT and a battery of other "IQ" tests used by public schools for gifted identification. Their efficacy can be judged by that up to three fourths of the class in certain schools earn the coveted "gifted" tag. Now, statistically that makes as much sense as every parent thinking that their child is above average does. Instead of the top one or two percent of the population, we have seventy-five percent making the high intellectual ability grade. Even after adjusting for the high density of well educated, high-intelligence and high-income parents in the area, the seventy-five percent figure is much too high. It does appear to suggest one of two things - either the bar is set too low or the identification process is seriously flawed. Either way, the "gifted and talented" label suffers loss of value and credibility.

It is no wonder then that schools often tell parents that every child is gifted and any early signs of being special will all but even out by the third grade - that is when most kids are reading at grade level or higher. They tend to be skeptical when parents claim that their child is too bright to be in regular classroom. It makes sense because it is hard for them to tell a hot-housed kid performing at several grade levels higher apart from one who is a natural and therefore meriting their attention. It can be argued that a child driven to achieve, should be given the same opportunities as one whose raw talent makes such achievement come by with much less conscious effort, schools seem to view the two qualities as distinctly different.

When you pit the prepared to the teeth kids (like those being coached and primed at home like my desi friend's son or by test preparation professionals in big cities) against those who come into these tests cold (as I believe they should for the results to mean anything at all), the competition becomes somewhat uneven if not unfair. The test instead of
measuring ability ends up measuring achievement doing disservice to everyone in the process. It seems that there is no clear way to tell the two types of students apart.

The truly gifted get lumped along with those who have merely worked hard and mastered a set of skills - having grown up in India, I am only too familiar with students who are master test takers but are entirely unremarkable otherwise. This variety would form the lowest common denominator of a TAG classroom. As a result, those truly deserving of the label "gifted" (for what it is worth) are not served well even with this advanced curriculum - they continue to struggle to fit it, find a peer group that equals their intellectual and creative abilities.While they have some respite from the monotony of their regular classroom , they still don't get the challenge and the mental stimulation they need in their "gifted classroom" - because of such less than satisfactory outcomes, books such as Genius Denied get written.

Now, if the schools were to raise the bar and say there will be a program for high-achievers and a separate one for who have exceptionally high innate ability, chances are that that the parents who are bent on hot-housing the kids so they make it into the TAG programs, would now train their kids to reach the higher bar. It would perhaps become a status issue for them for their children to not make it to the top of the scale. It is no-win situation for both the cash and resource strapped public schools and the the kids who really need a very different kind of education to make the most of their truly special gifts.

The gifted program in public schools, is one of the many things about America that had sounded wonderful to me growing up in India. I believed that there was a different and better way to educate children. The idea that every child's innate ability would be recognized and nurtured to reach its full potential sounded like the ultimate dream in a crowded classroom of forty five kids where teachers had neither the time for nor interest in being talent scouts. We were on our own, churning through the system mostly on auto-pilot, sinking or swimming as we went. As I get familiar with how it really works here in America, I am not sure that the program is everything I once imagined it might be.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cultural Insensitivity

J's class has spent the last month learning about China and I was really happy to see them do so. Up until now, their world has been limited to the state they live in with occasional forays into the country. The kids got interesting projects with themes related to China assigned to them and if they were willing to look deeper and further than Wikipedia or Google's first ten results per key word search, they could learn quite a lot. I wished they had rounded off the month with some Chinese food and music in the classroom - it would make for a lovely finale.

This is exactly the kind of learning I never got to enjoy as a child and really wanted J to have. The kids were challenged to come up with the most unusual facts on the subject they were researching on a given week. This required looking beyond the easy to find sources of information, reading books instead of browsing web sites and generally stoking the urge to discover more.

So, it came as a surprise and more than a little disappointment to see the reading comprehension passage the kids were assigned at end of the project month. The story was titled "The Chinese Bowl" in which a little girl breaks a big, heavy bowl "Made In China" accidentally and is worried it may be one of her mother's antiques. We are told that her mother has things that are hundreds of years old - dishes from England and furniture from around the world. Naturally, the girl thinks this bowl is a Chinese antique.

In the last line of the passage the mother walks into the room and asks her "Did you see that ugly little bowl I got at the hardware store for the puppy's food ? I think it's too ugly to keep"

I found that very offensive in the context of the month's theme and the title of the passage. I asked J what she had thought of the passage and she said "I didn't really like it". Apparently she had got the same vibe as I had from it "being rude to Chinese people" in her words. J is possibly more than a little sensitive about this being a minority herself and having a close buddy who is Chinese. In one fell swoop a month's worth of good, positive work was undone.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Less A Person

I was hooked on the Internet almost as soon as I first came into contact with more than fifteen years ago. It was a slow dial up connection in a British Council Library in Kolkata and you paid for your use by the hour. It was not horribly expensive but you just did not sit around forever. I guess new users like myself, were yet to understand the full potential of the medium to determine what we might do with unlimited, unfettered access to it.

You came with a plan and stuck to it the best you could given the many temptations to stray via hyper-links. I remember tearing through Bulfinch's Greek Mythology as quickly as I could and emailing chapters of text to myself for reading later. This was the first time that I had been experienced reading for pleasure without needing a physical book. It would be hard to describe the sense of exhilaration that I felt - suddenly the world had acquired a dimension that had till then not existed. All this over a lethargic and rather capricious dial-up connection !

I have yet to be unfascinated by the Internet and all that it makes possible. My life has changed fundamentally because of it - if I had to learn to breathe and survive on something other than oxygen it would be no different. Reading this comment by actress Keira Knightley made me wonder about the dehumanizing aspects of the medium :

The actress said being chained to e-mail and Twitter accounts makes her feel like less of a person.

"I find it dehumanizing to constantly check e-mails or social sites which have become so fashionable," she continued.

I don't know about being "chained" to the net - that does have a strongly negative connotation. However, needing that constant, always-on connection to the web could be termed a dependence of the kind that is not natural or organic to what makes us human. Extending the same logic, any innovation that brings about massive social and cultural changes could be viewed in the same way. Movable type could have been the "dehumanizing" influence of its time just as Twitter/Facebook are today.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cooking Aids

Cleaning the stove-top after cooking has got to among the most unrewarding household chores. I love this utterly beautiful roll-up stove that I am sure make the cleaner feel a little better rewarded because of its looks. The idea of a drawer style fridge is nice too - less space taken, easier to find and use things before they turn into science experiments and hopefully not as much of an energy hog as the old-fashioned refrigerator.

What is a nice kitchen without a state-of-the-art indoor composter (I have blogged about this one before and the technology has progressed since then) Taking the trash out for me is a constant battle between good intention and laziness. It helps that J wastes no time to let me know that kitchen is "stinky" - she is a little neat freak. Some of the most creative gadget ideas for the kitchen are to serve the cooking for one need.

College and for several years after that I cooked for one and it was enough to kill the pleasure I found in cooking. No number of tips for solo-cooking or gadgets would change that for me. As far as I am concerned, cooking is fun only if it is for more than one. I am lucky that J has a sophisticated palate for her age. Kiddie meals don't appeal to her and neither do hastily cooked meals at home.To impress J, food has to be cooked slow and right - with love and attention. I am glad that she has high standards even if I most often fail to make the grade.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Keeping Libraries Alive

If there was one part of my immigrant experience I could choose to love best it would be the public libraries in America. The first time I walked into one, I felt like I was in Aladdin's cave and this was even before I had found out that I could check out upwards of twenty items including music and movies. My wonderment has not reduced over the years. I still count my blessings each time I visit a public library.

When I tell J about the thrill I experience l walking into the library, she looks perplexed. Though going to the library is among her favorite things to do, it is a natural element of her environment - no more remarkable that the air she breathes or the water she drinks. To her this is one among Mommy's many eccentricities - harmless but rather quaint.

She does not know that there is a different way of life too. One in which you slip your library card through a small window in a wall, select a book from a type-written catalog and wait for the the guy at the window to bring you back a dog-eared copy (if you are lucky) or come back another day to try your luck again. I read book-reviews voraciously knowing fully well that I would not be able to read the book itself in years if ever. My reading list filled a well-worn notebook - a catalog of my unfulfilled desire to know and learn what I could not.

That was my life growing up. So the bounty of the American public library is never lost on me - not for a minute. To read about the libraries around the US closing down or reducing staff and hours is specially sad. I can only hope that people in this country value the incomparable service public libraries provide enough to keep them funded through the hardest times. It is easy enough to take for granted what you have always had and not until it is irretrievably gone does the magnitude of the loss strike home. By then it is often too late. After all, we in the Indian subcontinent did not get to from Taxila and Nalanda to a hole in the wall library in a day.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Open Source and Desis

It is very heartening to see that 101 Indian students made it to the Google Summer of Code 2009 program. Hopefully, this and other forays into the world of open-source development by desi techies will shake off the code-coolie stereotype that has come to be associated with the majority of the tribe. Many have bemoaned the lack of Indian contribution to the open source cause and tried to understand this phenomenon.

As Dr Deepak Pathak, chair professor KReSIT, IIT Bombay puts it, Indians have been "net-takers" rather than "net-givers" to open-source and knowledge generation in general. He goes on to add that culturally, desis are not likely to contribute to any significant cause unless they stand to gain something from it as well. In this article written by Ryan Norbauer on his experience working with Indian developers, the author offers his perspective on disproportionate lack of contribution to open-source by desi developers :

Indian employers don’t allow their developers to blog or make contributions to open-source, for fear of losing them to competitors who might contact them directly. And if an employer doesn’t permit his or her employees to contribute back to the platforms they work with on a daily basis, it means they’re probably more obsessed with billing every hour possible than in building up their team and technology.

Having worked with many Indian offshore teams over the years, I have seen the pattern Norbauer writes about repeated in almost every firm. Very likely the US based company using the services of the offshore vendor allowed cost to be the single overriding factor. The author advices against this :

... try to find the most expensive and accomplished provider possible. When you’re already saving money working with an offshore (or at least partly offshore) team, it’s very easy to get greedy and go for whoever bids the lowest rate. But if a team promises they’re going to give you great work for what sounds like an insanely cheap price (and, believe me, these folks aren’t hard to find), red flags should go up immediately; they probably have no idea what they’re doing. It took me a few bad experiences early on to learn this lesson, but it’s one I’ll never forget.

With the start-up culture gathering more and more steam in India, the younger generation of software developers are likely to enjoy a lot more freedom in terms of their career options than their predecessors did. With a good idea and the technical chops to bring it to fruition, a young person is no longer beholden to their "sweat-shop" style employer who will work them insanely hard to bill the hours without giving employees the opportunity to grow their skills and knowledge base. Contributing to open-source is likely to become much more common place when the strait jacket constraints of conventional employment are relaxed or better yet removed.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Brain Gym

Recently a friend and I were chatting about how irrelevant our education has been as far as the work we do for a living. When you consider the cost of acquiring the degrees we need to enter the job market, you have to wonder if the time and effort (and in many cases also a great deal of money) would not have been better spent learning vocational skills that we could have found some practical use of. For a lot of people, after a number of years in the workforce, their academic degree becomes more ornamental than functional.

Of course there is education that is worth acquiring simply because we want to broaden our horizons or have a passion for a certain subject and want to immerse ourselves in it. With those goals, it may be entirely acceptable to not find any "material" application of the learning - as would most likely be the case with some of the stranger courses offered by American universities.

The worst casualty of not being able to use or apply your education in the workplace is probably the stagnation of your mental faculties. At some point ,your paycheck becomes dependent on your speed and proficiency at a certain set of skills that rarely challenge you to apply knowledge in unusual ways let alone require you to learn more. It does not surprise me that the concept of a "brain-gym" is catching on - clearly a lot of people are not getting the mental exercise they need from the work they do for a living.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Technology Flubs

Interesting list of top ten disappointments in technology. I had all but forgotten about Northern Light - my favorite search engine before Google became mainstay. The article mentions it among other search engines that were in currency before the dot-com bust. Both Ubuntu (the OS that I use on my home computer) and Vista (the OS that came pre-installed on the said machine and which I ardently dislike) make the list. Between the two "disappointments", I prefer Ubuntu.

Then is there is the
list of technology that burnt early adopters - I used to own an Iomega Zip Disk many moons ago. With that, technology has burnt me once and disappointed a couple of times - by conservative estimates. That is sobering news and timely as well I might add being that I am in the market for a digital camcorder in time for J's dance recital - this might be when I get burnt plus disappointed while paying too much for the thing. While on the topic of technology messing with my life, computers are also ruining some of our favorite games - an example of technology being better that we need it to be and thereby causing us pain.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Keeping Faith

Faith can be a tenuous thing sometimes. A few days ago, J and I were watching the movie The Secret Of The Magic Gourd. The lessons it teaches are important ones - having all your wishes granted can often lead to unforeseen trouble and working hard to earn something is the best reward possible. As luck would have it earlier in the day, J's faith was put to a little test.

She had done her homework and put it away in the homework folder which also happens to be the folder in which her teacher sends a battery of paperwork home each day. One of my daily chores is to sift through those papers, attend to any that need attending and trash the rest. But it gets even more complicated. Often classwork is sent home without anything to indicate that the teacher had reviewed or graded it - in the self-same folder. I can't imagine why it would be horribly difficult to have three color-coded folders for the three different types of paper-work.

So, the previous night, while going through the three-timing "homework" folder, I had inadvertently removed the homework sheet. This is not the first time that I have made such a mistake. Luckily, I have discovered it before going to work and have dropped it off at the school. Even her teacher has come to expect that missing homework will show up before 9:00 a.m. This time, I did not notice the homework and did not bring it in.

Right after we had watched the movie, J started to cry and said "You say if you pray to God with all your heart for something, you always get it. So why did I not get my homework. I prayed really hard but God did not listen to me" There was also the fact of her not being at fault. She had done her part and yet was penalized like she had not. There was disappointment at the unfairness of what had happened and a certain amount of righteous indignation. She wanted to be angry at me but could not do so in good conscience given my excellent track record with bring in missing homework - J tends to be very fair while assigning blame.

While all of that was easily resolved, the issue of faith was quite another matter. I am guessing J's prayers have been answered so far or situations have resolved themselves to her satisfaction. It was hard for me rationalize what had happened while reaffirming the value of her faith in prayer. We talked about lessons learned and how sometimes the lesson is far more valuable over time than immediate wish fulfillment and the movie we had just watched became an excellent point of reference. J went to bed feeling a lot better.Maybe such is the power of prayer.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Name Unrecognized

It is nice to see someone who has been through the system say it like it is about the JEE entrance exam and why it is such a terrible means to a good (?) end - a post I happened by long after it was written.
I think that IIT kids were really brilliant at one stage, but a mind numbing system like the IIT, mind numbing profs and meaningless societal expectations just robs people out of their real passion for life.

Finally, very few in the US even today have heard of the IIT’s. The only companies who know are those hiring massive armies of coders. Its time people get over the IIT hype and start living a life.
I have lived and worked in several cities working for small to large companies in the US and am yet to meet a non-desi who is even familiar with any Indian universities, IITs included. To most of them us desis are this homogeneous glob of brown techies who can write reams of code and sometimes function in other roles within the technology business. Some of us are really good at what we do but there is absolutely no dearth of morons in our tribe as folks will be quick to point out.

We tend to be hard-workers and will not flinch at working late hours, holidays and weekends to make up for the lack of innate ability. We also tend not to be very expensive and that is generally pegged on the H1 status. While many of these characterizations maybe be cliches and stereotypes, they seem to have considerable sticking power.

One way or the other, a brown techie is likely to get the job done. That is not exactly a stellar reputation but is possibly responsible for the success the community has had in the job market. It would have helped all desis in the IT business at least, if the IIT-brand had the name recognition that it is supposed to have.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Shocked Out Of Buzzwords

Though the idea may be a bit Pavlovian, the usefulness of the Buzzword shocker bracelet in undeniable. Maybe all companies should hand these to everyone whose job description might involve copious amounts management-speak - if only as a favor to those who have to listen to them. The best part has got to be the USB connected wristband that allows you to download buzzword data from your computer. The technology business generates an obscene amount of them every day so the notion of being able to expand the list of offending words is particularly thoughtful.

I am trying to imagine this thing on the wrists of some of the most verbose executives I have met over the years. Most of them would not be able to get a sentence in without receiving an electric shock. There is almost a sense of karmic retribution in that from the point of view of those who have been subjected to their buzzword-laden gibberish meeting after meeting.The idea is
"Soon your subconscious is associating those words with an unpleasant sensation, and before you know it, you sound more polished and professional". This is almost too good to be true. The handy graph that traces your buzzword culpability over time is excellent.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tales Of The Wierd

My friend K emailed this to me with a note saying "I thought you'd get a chuckle out of it". The profile below belongs to a 53 year old man who is divorced with a couple of teen-aged kids and looking to get hitched again. That he would see it fit to express his interest in a woman who has never been married before and is just over half his age, would probably prompt a "WTF !" reaction in most people (it certainly did in me). But what he has to say is just too precious not to share.

I am looking for a partner who is willing to settle in US, India or South Africa. Beauty is a must. Must be good cook I am not looking for a partner can't make up her mind. I don't want my partner be negatively influenced by family. My partner must be happy all the time I don't need depressed or PMSY. Thank you and looking for your message.

I wrote K back asking her to humor this man for a just a little bit. Tell him that she is taking lessons in gourmet cooking and will touch base with him when she is ready to put her education to use. She will be very glad to give up her thriving career in America to become a full-time, stay-at-home cook in any of the three countries he mentions though she would not hesitate one bit to follow him to Chad or Outer Mongolia should that be required.

She is still trying to figure the best way to cut loose from her family and friends in the US because they could only be a baleful influence on her marriage with him. What use would she have of such dead-weight in her life once she becomes his wife ?

Finally to end on a cheerful note, K could write she has never suffered from PMS but to preempt getting depressed, she will go on Prozac or some such pro-actively. In the end, marrying a man like him is any woman's dream come true and she would make sure she met or exceeded all his expectations. I am guessing K has no time or interest to play such ridiculous games so the rest of us will miss on some really big laughs.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tween Fashion Victims

This article on the diva-fication of today's tweens is good reading for parents of tweens. I have not failed to notice that J looks relatively gauche compared to her more fashionable peers. I figure the challenge for me is to build her self-esteem without allowing her to fall into the make-over trap. The author is right that 6-8 year old girls go to the salon to have their hair-styled. Pedicure and manicure sessions are common at sleepovers and birthday parties. It does not take them long to graduate from the "play" makeup to the real thing. It makes for a rather disconcerting sight to see a first grader with ironed hair and more than a dash of eye makeup.

While a lot can and is attributed to the portrayal of girls and women in their air-brushed perfection, parents play an equal if more greater role in allowing girls to become fashion victims while they are so young and impressionable. If a woman has a positive body image and is at peace with herself, chances are that she will be able to pass on that confidence on to her daughter.

There are plenty of little girls who look and act their age even though they are exposed to the same kind of baleful media influences as those who strive for the impossibly perfect look with the tacit consent of their parents.

These are challenging times in that media is as intrusive as it is ubiquitous - if you live in society you cannot escape what it is relentlessly projecting. However, that does not make it inherently impossible for parents to have their own guard rails or set an alternative standard or example that their children can follow.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Opportunity In Potholes

Reading this report about KFC willing to fill pot-holes across America for free (if you don't count their stenciled logo on the patch of re-freshed road) reminded me of my home town in India. In the 80s there were more potholes than road in what used to be then called Calcutta. Things a slightly better now but not a whole lot. Unfortunately, the local businesses did not try and seize these gaping marketing opportunities and fill them up to their advantage.

While as of now not all cities in America are interested in taking up KFC on its offer, given enough pot holes and a crippling lack of resources to fill them, they may sing quite a different tune. KFC is reportedly part of a larger trend :

The magazine Advertising Age reports that the KFC campaign appears to be part of a growing effort by companies to build goodwill. It notes that this past holiday season, Charmin provided a public restroom in Times Square for the third year running. The company has also developed an application for iPhone and BlackBerry that helps consumers find toilets when the need arises. Samsung has installed electrical charging stations in many major airports to help travelers stay connected while in limbo.

While there is some evidence of road divider beautification projects by corporations in India, they have not for the most part got involved in larger public works projects. The ubiquitous pot-holes, political graffiti emblazoned walls and missing manhole covers present a great opportunity - a perfect way to get their foot in the door. It might not take too long even at the rate of one pot-hole at a time to become lord and master of entire roads and bridges not to mention the buzz and good karma earned for the brand.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Teaching Exuberance

J, like kids of her age can alternate between being very happy about the here and now (as in saying my chicken with lemon-pepper seasoning and fresh rosemary is the best food in the whole world and should replace every other kind of food there is) and turning petulant for what she does not have (a "real" home, a sibling, extended family, a mom who can be home when she comes back from school in the afternoon and a dad - in that order).

Recently, she spent a miserable Saturday morning because we were not able to find her doll Junie - last seen a few years ago. Junie was of course not the real problem but became its representative. When J gets in these moods which is thankfully a rare occurrence, it takes quite a bit of work to make her snap out of it. We had our breakthrough that evening when I got her to help me make some "magic potion" - lemon juice, sugar and rosewater mixed in ice cold water. The recipe had been found in one of the Tales Alive ! books we have borrowed from the library.

I don't know about "gratitude intervention" this article talks about, but I try to talk to J about all the lucky things that happened to us to allow us to live the life we lead today. I show her examples from the lives of those around us where people have all the things she does not have and yet are really not jumping for joy as she might expect. Yet, people with much less are more full of joy.

I try to illustrate to her that happiness is not a function of what shes has or does not have and what's more, it is entirely up to her to be as happy as she wants to be. I try to be a good example by not being a whiner and seeking opportunity in the many inopportune challenges I face from day to day. Yet I am only too human and often reach my limits. I have gone through days feeling anything but cheerful. The more I try to compartmentalize my own state of mind and my outward behavior with J so she is not impacted by them, the greater the strain on both of us.

There is much I have to learn of the art of being happy and do believe parents need help on how they could teach kids to be happy without taking the path of least resistance which involves numbing them with material excess. After a while, I seem to run out of new things to say on the subject, fresh perspectives to share with J.

There is some risk though with turning completely Pollyanna in the real world :
Following on the heels of the self-improvement and self-esteem movements (the latter of which is now criticized as sparking an epidemic of narcissism and out-of-control praise), positive psychology might just be another fad, they say. It probably won't hurt anyone, but will it help in significant ways?

Monday, May 11, 2009

China's Unnatural Disaster

It was particularly heart-rending to watch HBO's China's Unnatural Disaster, The Tears of Sichuan Province on a Mother's Day weekend. All around me are the signs of celebration of the mother and her motherhood - which despite its Hallmark holiday status is still rather poignant. To watch greiving parents of dead children on such a day is extremely sobering. It forces you to count your blessings, treasure the children you are fortunate to be the parents of.

The film follows a group of villagers who lost their children (often the only one they had) in the Sichaun earthquake of 2007. The parents take their protest to the regional capital of Sichua after the local government officials turn a deaf ear to their demand of justice. They blame the disproprionately high death toll of children trapped and buried under school buildings to their shoddy construction and on local officials who allowed these buildings to pass inspection.

The parents fight as hard and as long as they can but the political machinery they are up against is altogether too powerful to move let alone overcome. Justice is meted out in the end (if a compensation of $8800 per dead child can be regarded as such) but hardly to the satisfaction of the bereaved parents. There is no admission of lapse or wrong doing, let alone a public apology. That these parents share their tragic story with the world or are even able to do so cannot be discounted in terms of significance but it would not restore to them what they lost - specially because the loss was not entirely due to an act of God.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Making Room

In the dark crevices
between tightly packed
old wounds and the memories
of them, there is a little room.
Room enough for
a droplet of compassion
to flow, maybe in time
to let the tide of forgiveness
to wash over
the pebbles of pain
turn them into glistening
beads strung on a tatty
string of old grudge.

Maybe you will feel them
one by one, for quality
and texture, ponder their
origin and value. Maybe
you will find most
are worthless trinkets,
baubles that mean
nothing anymore.
You will consider the string itself
and wonder if it will hold much longer.

You will struggle between
throwing it all away and
stringing the best beads
over - on a fresh twine of
revived grudge. In the end
you may find a lacquered
box of hardened sadness
to keep the beads that are
the most significant.

Yes, you will go over
them many times. The trickle
of compassion or the tide
of forgiveness can do your
box no harm. Such would be
the memories you will hoard
forever. On days that you are
hurt again, you will seek out
your box to count your beads,
add new ones at time.

Happiness is when you come
upon your box after many years
and can no longer remember when
or why the beads came there.
It is when you don't want bead or
box anymore. I wish you just this.
Till then, I can be the keeper of
beads, box and string so your heart
is lighter and there is room in it
for love, compassion and trust.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Partnership And Success

This review of the book Beside Every Successful Man intrigued me enough to read it. If you time-strapped reader like me, I would recommend reading up to the end of Chapter 1, skimming through the rest of the book which has the "let me show you how to get a grip on your life" delivered from on high ( I have very little patience for that kind of thing) and then reading the conclusion.

That should give you a good enough summary of the case Megan Basham is trying to make for women to come back home and walk beside (not behind) their husbands. The fatal flaw of her premise is that every husband has what it takes to achieve great professional success and that the wife would be better served helping him advance rather than doing so herself. As it turns out, mediocrity is rife in the real world and such sacrifice by women at the altar of their husband's "careers" can only lead to great disappointment to both parties not to mention the considerable financial hardship in many cases.

That said, I once used to be the kind of woman the author references in her book - a woman who found it most rewarding to support her spouse in achieving his professional (and personal) goals and tending to the family. Having a career was not nearly as important or satisfying. For the brief period of time that I was married that was the exactly the kind of life I sought too. Like Basham points, women like me are not a minority.

Then there was reality of being the sole-provider for a my child as a full-time working single-mom. It was quite a dramatic difference between what I expected out of marriage and where I find myself today. This change of circumstance has been very useful in helping me understand what I really want and what actually makes me happy.

I still think there is some merit to the author's point about some women being better served playing the supporting role in the marriage instead of being the main act in terms of career aspirations. The woman who could benefit from such a role would have an assortment of hobbies and interests that she can never find time to fully develop if she had a full-time career and domestic responsibilities to manage as well, her husband made enough for the family to live comfortably and most importantly the marriage was rock-solid. If any of these conditions were not satisfied, it would not work out for the woman.

If super-man is married to super-woman no rules apply - together they can make the impossible happen. There are highly successful couples who are able to balance very demanding jobs along with their responsibilities at home without missing a beat. They are simply able to get more out of their time and resources than most other people are able to. In this kind of partnership, both man and woman stand beside the other and are the reason for the other's success. One does not have to slow down or stop for the other.

If an average man is married to an average woman and as a couple they seek to be a little above average, two-incomes can be a way to fulfill that goal at least in part. Neither of them would achieve great career success but they can plod along together and have a better quality of life as a family. There is no sense for a woman in such a marriage to stay home and stand beside her man in hopes of helping him achieve success - he just does not have what it takes and no amount of support is going to get him there.

In any marriage, if one of the spouses is genuinely gifted and has the potential to be a huge success, it best thing the other spouse can do for the marriage is to help them reach that level. Some examples that come to mind of men who work full-time to support their highly talented wives, are Chandrodoy Ghosh (Mamata Shankar's husband) and John Shaw (Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw's husband).

Men have not played a supporting role in marriage traditionally so it does not come to them naturally or easily. It would take a very loving, generous spirit and a lot of respect for his wife's talents for a man to give up his own identity to enhance hers. Needless to say, these women are incredibly lucky to have such men in their lives.

One of the worst scenarios involves a woman who really is average but is convinced that she could go far if she dedicated herself to her career. She is married to a man who is average too but more aware of his limitations than she is of hers. Such a woman will demand huge sacrifices from the family as she pursues she Quixotic career ambitions.

The man is left to hold fort while she is out slaying the corporate dragons. The kids grow up nearly motherless and cling to the father like their life depended on it. If roles were reversed and the man were to have career ambitions that were out of proportion with his abilities, the family would still suffer but a lot less. The kids would still have a mother which makes a big difference to their lives at a tender age.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Words For Our Times

Found this really neat blog about news words to describe the times we live in. I will be following this one for sure - what better way to understand the world around you than to build a contemporary vocabulary. That I think I can do even if I am lagging by several internet years as far as newest, coolest consumer technology.

Here I am lusting an iPhone only to read that it is so yesterday - Handsolo is the newest coolest thing to have. Clearly, this is not the lag that one catches up with over time - the gulf just grows wider until one such as myself is left behind in the darkness. Thanks to
Schott's Vocab, at least I will speak the same language as those in the light.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Umami

Venky, Roma, Chaitali (not their real names) and I had been co-workers for a year about ten years ago. We have stayed in touch ever since. Venky had a crush on Roma but no one took it too seriously because he was incredibly funny and prone to having crushes that did not last more than a week.

Roma was fun and flirty herself but did not consider any of the "boys" we worked with worth her while. She had "higher standards" like the smooth-talking sales dude with gel-slicked hair who worked one floor below us.
Uber-geek, Venky would not make the grade in a million years - or so we imagined.

He persisted with Roma all the same. What is more he remained interested in her for several months. Then the unthinkable happened - he proposed to her and wonder of wonders, she accepted without any fuss at all. Roma and
Venky - they made the oddest couple who seemed to have absolutely nothing in common except being able to make each other laugh.

Chaitali was engaged to marry a good-looking, IIT-IIM alum with a nice job in Mumbai and a sea-facing apartment - husband material does not come a lot better wrapped than that. They had known each other since high-school and were considered an item ever since. The only detour in their fairy tale romance came in the form of Ketan who Chaitali had met during an off-site training event after she started working.

Ketan was completely unlike her fiance. He had attended a small time engineering college and only because his father forced him to do so. Left to his own devices, he would have studied literature and acting. He contributed poetry to a several magazines and was part of a traveling theatre group. He worked only because his hobbies did not pay the bills.

There was an instantaneous spark between them that
Chaitali had never felt with anyone - she had no idea such a thing could even happen until meeting Ketan. He did not offer more than friendship knowing her situation and she never indicated that she might actually consider such an offer. They parted very good friends three weeks later.

Back in the office,
Chaitali told Roma and me about Ketan. She was confused about how she felt about him and wanted to assure herself that she was still in love with the man she was about to marry in a couple of months. Even as she tried to dismiss Ketan as an irrational attraction, she would wait anxiously for him to reply to her emails and agonize over what if he never wrote back.

I met
Chaitali again a few years after her marriage. She mentioned casually that Ketan and her were still in touch and that her husband had actually met him once. I was glad that everything had fallen in place perfectly and no feelings were hurt. She seemed happy and had plenty going on in her life - a child would arrive in a few months making her busier.

Over the years, my contact with the three has been limited to a couple of emails exchanged around the New Year. We just get sucked into the demands of our lives to do more than that. This year, I got a picture of
Venky and Roma in Thailand - the first I have seen of both of them together after their marriage. Venky looks every bit a nerd but a very peaceful and content one. Roma is positively glowing - stylish as always in her white crocheted top, understated yet perfect makeup and swept back hair. In short, a picture of a happy couple who don't look odd together at all.

A few days later there was a picture of
Chaitali and her husband with the Rome in the background. This picture was a remarkable contrast to the one of Venky and Roma. This couple does not have the body language of a content, harmonious pair. Yet at the time of their marriage they had looked perfect together. In this picture they look posed with their plastic smiles. But they look confident and successful as individuals that they are - no one would doubt that they are a power couple.

The pictures got me thinking about how unpredictable marriage can be. In
Chaitali's case the ingredients were perfect and in many ways it has worked out very well. Yet there is the final flavor which perfects the dish - umami. Her marriage is probably lacking that. Roma and Venky started out far from perfect. Roma was not nearly the looker Chaitali was. Venky lacked the academic pedigree of Chaitali's husband. They definitely did not look like a made for each other pair at their wedding. Yet together they are greater than the sum of their parts. Venky is very successful professionally - Roma was key in smoothing out his rough edges.

Blessed are those who can sense the presence of this mysterious ingredient in a relationship because it is what elevates bland to wonderful. Lucky are those who stumble upon it without even knowing that it exists. Then there are those who have everything in their marriage and therefore find it impossible to spot what is missing yet its absence leaves them yearning for something that they can't even describe.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Alzheimer's Project

HBO's Alzheimer Project approaches the manifestations of the disease from the standpoint of everyone who is impacted or involved though the main narrative is that of the patient suffering from it.

The pain that comes from the gradual erasure of memory is one that is felt very deeply by loved ones - the spouse who becomes a stranger after years of being in a happy marriage, the children who can no longer shoulder the burden of care-giving and are forced to move the ailing parent to a nursing home facility and the grand kids who long for the love of the grandparent they once knew.

Then there are the ominous signs - forgetting words, lapses of memory, taking longer than usual to say something - that the people experience at the onset of the disease. At several points, hearing the patients describe the early signs you can't help wondering if we should not play closer attention to what we routinely dismiss as absent-mindedness specially when under stress.

The film follows several patients who are coping with the knowledge that they have Alzheimer's and are in a sense at the beginning of the end. They find sustenance through support groups of fellow-sufferers or in the company of a grand-child who wants to be reassured that they are still loved and recognized.

They hold on to the here and now fiercely trying to chronicle their lives while they are still be able too - one woman paints pictures another man writes a blog. Yet amid all this suffering and sense of futility, there is hope in the progress scientists have made in finding a cure if not a prevention for the disease.

In the film Momentum In Science, one scientist calls today a magical time when the bits and pieces of knowledge around Alzheimer's are finally coming together bringing the discovery of a remedy within the realm of possible. Until that happens,
Alzheimer's will continue to be among the most dreaded diseases - causing patient and caregiver to suffer alike.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Holding A Child's Hand

Having grown up in a very liberal household where there were limited rules and fewer restrictions, I have no first-person experience being kept on a tight leash by my parents. I would have no doubt rebelled had they tried to impose their will on me and learned to evade detection if I was monitored and controlled. Now that I am a parent myself raising a child in a far more complex world than what I grew up in, it is my turn to figure out what if any rules would apply for J.

I cringe at the thought of remote controlling kids as this iApp allows parents to do. This can only degenerate into a cat and mouse game with kids being one step ahead at all times given their greater familiarity and comfort level with new technology. The parent is effectively letting them know that they do not trust them and that sentiment is fully reciprocal. Besides, it is impossible to love when there is no trust. There is no easier or more effective way to strain (often to the point of complete breakdown) the parent-child relationship.

When I got J a laptop last summer, I wondered if I should have parental controls installed as my most of my friends with kids do. They reason it is the easiest way to keep kids safe and I don't disagree. But with any cyber-nanny service there is the ability to monitor and block access remotely and that I find onerous from a child's perspective - I know for a fact that I would have resented if it was done to me when I was a child.

In the end, I decided not to filter or monitor J's access - several moms warned me that I would regret my decision someday and by then it would be too late. I explained to J that wandering around the web without adult guidance is the cyberspace equivalent of crossing the road without looking on both sides and therefore being at a very high risk of being run over by a passing car. It is just not a very smart thing to do. She is welcome to explore and learn to navigate her way around the web but I would like to be around so I can make sure she does not get into trouble.

At six years old, it was not very hard to get this message across to J. At twelve I am guessing it would have been next to impossible.Since she holds my hand when we cross a busy intersection, she does not find it hard to accept me as her guide around the Internet. So far it has worked out well. She enjoys a sense of freedom that few if any of her friends do and yet she feels safe. It takes me more time, effort and direct involvement with J during her time on-line than it might have had with a cyber-nanny service to keep her out of trouble but it is time I am glad to spend in the interest of fostering a relationship of trust with J.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Elsewhere USA

I can't recall the last time, I read a piece of non-fiction and enjoyed it quite as much as I did Elsewhere, USA - How we got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. The book tackles a plethora of socio-economic themes of the day and uses the archetypal Mr. and Mrs 1959 to contrast against Mr and Mrs 2009 to tell the story.

Dalton Conley offers many interesting and fresh insights based on his analysis of facts that are fairly common knowledge. That he is able to do this chapter after chapter, theme after theme is what makes this book such a wonderful read.

I particularly enjoyed his take on the the current state of love, relationship and marriage. Conley attributes it to the rise of income inequality, the increase in the numbers of financially independent women and economic anxiety. In the chapter titled Polymorphous Perversity he writes :

We have come full circle : At one time we lived in tribes. These devolved into extended kin networks (living with the cousins and grandma, too). That was replaced by the nuclear family. But then this unit also broke down - or, rather devolved, to use a less judgmental term. Now we circulate like electron clouds through the networks of love and human connection. So perhaps it is ironic that in our supermodern - or postmodern - Elsewhere Society, intraviduals end up with love networks that look a lot like those of African villagers.

This is not true just of America but of any society in the world that has access to modern telecommunication technology and where material success is prized much higher than anything else.

At the end of this chapter while comparing the education and enrichment methods adopted by different types of modern parents, Conely says :

The Waldorfians and their kin are trying to effect the Tortoise to the super-soccer mom's Hare, but they are competing in the same achievement decathlon nonetheless.

He refers to the Waldorf approach to schooling which bans almost every aspect of popular culture "
in an effort to protect young ones so their minds can develop naturally and purely". At the opposite end of the education philosophy spectrum, are over-scheduled kids who are made to participate in an endless number of activities by their parents. Being a parent myself who is trying to seek balance for my child, I could not agree with the Hare and Tortoise analogy more.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Facing The Mirror

I have sometimes been surprised by the mirror showing me a mood in my face that I was not aware of being in. When the difference between how I am feeling at the time versus how I appear to be feeling is sharp enough, I am not sure what to trust - the eye or the gut. When I focused on something intently J has asked "Mommy, you look mad, what's wrong ?" I have to explain to her that there is nothing wrong, I am just thinking and she will follow up with "What are you thinking that is making you mad ?". I guess it bothers her when she is not able to understand why I have the expression on my face that I do.

So until, I abandon my train of thought and whatever it is that I am doing, focus my attention on her, relax and smile, J is not quite convinced that I am not mad. From my own experience, I had been aware of lack of the agreement between mood and facial appearance but reading this article on how the mirror does not really tell us how we appear to the world taught me something new about mirrors.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Ghajini

Identical twins separated at birth and reunited by happenstance, loss of memory and the cascading (and ballooning) effects of a small misunderstanding have been among the most frequently occurring Bollywood story genres. Ghajini is around a sub-genre - a short-term lapse of memory resulting in a full-length movie. In that, it is quite a remarkable achievement.

The few stills and posters of the movie that I had seen online inevitably showed a shirtless, shaved and tattooed Aamir Khan looking violently angry - just the kind of imagery that makes the decision not to watch a movie a no brainer as far as I am concerned. I can think of at least a dozen ways to spend a couple of hours that are infinitely more fun than watching Aamir Khan flaunt his muscles and grimace in rage.

Then desis of all stripes started to urge me to check the movie out until my resistance wore out and I succumbed. The leading lady is the ultimate desi-male dream come true - cute, unselfish, vivacious, Pollyanna, self-sacrificing, cheerful, supremely "family-oriented" and utterly naive. Even her lies are incredibly charming and are told only for the right reasons. In short, she is as perfect as only Bollywood can make the desi-female. Khan goes ahead and falls in love with her as he must if he has even an iota of desi-male in his system.

All the women who come into contact with the hero, do better than best to put themselves in harm's way and sure enough the bad guys come along causing trouble - indeed the survival of the storyline depends entirely on them doing so. The characters are required to make one harebrained choice after the other so the saga of consequences can follow to fill the hours. Which in turn presents the super-human hero the opportunity to take on several dozen armed goons single-handedly (literally as well I might add) and emerge victorious.But all of that is standard Bollywood fare - you are expected to be used to it and just look the other way in the interests of "entertainment".

This movie hinges around the 15 minute store and recall ability of Khan's memory after his head is seriously injured by the aforementioned goons who for no obvious reason don't kill him when the opportunities present themselves. Khan does a good job romancing the utterly "adorable" leading lady while being the unassuming billionaire (though the rolled up shirt-sleeves to put the biceps on permanent display had me a bit mystified) and then becoming this haunted man tormented by memories he is not fully able to recall or process.

But just one strong performer does not make for a great movie. I am still trying to figure out what the desis of my acquaintance saw that I missed about Ghajini.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Drama And Groceries

A chance to watch a play unfolding in the aisle of a grocery store sounds like a really fun and clever idea. If you are in a rush and want to be out of there as quickly as you can, the gathering of actors and audience in the cereal aisle may prove to be an annoyance. Wonder when this newest marketing ploy, to make you linger longer that you need to and thereby increase your likelihood of spending more, will come to a grocery store near me. In the meanwhile, I can try to imagine the experience :

There are several cycles in the hour-long performance, allowing you to follow each set of characters around the shop. And even though you can shop at the same time, we doubt you'll want to split from the very engaging actors and their lovelorn plights; you'll be called upon for relationship advice while looking for toilet rolls. And you can't tell which staff are actors too, as the PA announcements seem to be in sonnet form..