Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ordinary Heroes

Watching HBO's documentary COMA was a moving experience. It chronicles the lives of four patients emerging from coma. You learn what it distinguishes a "minimally conscious" state from a "vegetative" one in medical terms. You learn when to feel hopeful that the patient may emerge from the twilight zone of seeming to in the here and now but not in a way that is comforting or tangible to their loved ones.

The interactions between adult patients and their parents is heartbreaking. Many of us parents whose kids are no longer young, vulnerable and innocent remember their childhood with a tinge of nostalgia. We wish our recalcitrant teen would be the utterly adorable toddler she once was.

These parents are actually confronted with their adult children reverting to infancy against their will and control. Every baby step on the road to recovery is applauded just like it must have been when this child took his first step or spoke the first word. The only difference is how joy is overlaid with immense sorrow they hide behind a brave, optimistic face. With a child there is abundant hope for the future, with these patients there is little to none.

While the documentary is about coma and people coming out of it to an uncertain future, it also shows how adversity makes super-heroes out of ordinary people. You feel humbled by the parents of the victims who work tirelessly to make life after coma worth living.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Milky Way Power

I gave J a small bar of Milk Way as a treat after we came back from a swim. As she ate it she said "I just ate the planets and the stars" I smiled and added "You also ate the Sun, the Moon and the Earth". She grew excited at the thought and said "I ate everything on the earth, the weather, the whole universe and I ate myself". I burst out laughing and J went on to say "I control everything that is in my tummy". I asked her if she felt powerful like God and she did. Who knew that a bar of Milky Way could result in a religious experience instead of a sugar high.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

No Central Theme

My big complaint about popular non-fiction is that they flog one central theme to death. If only there were more books like Freakonomics. It had me hooked right from page one. The way Levitt and Dubner segue from one theme to another is almost reminiscent of Sherezade’s Arabian Nights.

Though I know zilch about economics, I have greatly enjoyed the book and the bizarre parallels between apparently unrelated phenomenon. The only thing I missed was the data to support the conclusions - while there was a scattering throughout the book, it was not nearly enough. No matter how compelling the theory, without the numbers it ends up feeling somewhat “lite”.

Subject matter experts could end up disappointed with what the lay person like me finds vastly entertaining. While they may find the lack of an "unifying theme" irksome, that is what makes this book such a delightful read. I am glad I got to it even if a few years too late.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Converting And Discovering

I love the idea of shoes with convertible heels - going from stilettos to flats with a flick of a switch. There is a magical quality to this - like finding a hidden room behind a book shelf or discovering words of a poem after blacking out newspaper. All of these ideas have a common theme - that of manufacturing serendipity which is described thusly :

You can't automate accidental discoveries, but you can manufacture the conditions in which such events are more likely to occur.

The hidden room is no secret garden that was suddenly discovered, it was put there by design to be mindfully sought out. It is possible that an imaginative child may find inspiration for prose or verse in it. Serendipity as one writer points out is an endangered joy in the modern world :

The modern world is conspiring against serendipity. But we cannot blame technology. I've met this enemy, and it is us. We forget: We invented this stuff. We must lead technology, not allow technology to lead us. The world is a better and more cost-effective place because of technology, but we've lost the imperfections inherent in humanity - the things that make life a messy and majestic catastrophe.

We must allow ourselves to be surprised. We must relearn how to be human, to start again as we did as children - learning through awkward and bungling discovery. Otherwise, when it's all over and we face the Distinguished Thing, we will have led extremely efficient but monstrously dull lives.

I was listening to Nancy Pearl's book recommendations on NPR for young kids. The theme of one titled "Feed" was about the extinction of serendipity in the future - which is a logical next step from being endangered.

Computer chips are implanted in most babies at birth. There's no need to go to school, since you can Google any information you might need; there's no need to talk to anyone, since you can IM instantaneously. There's certainly no need to think, especially since the banner ads that float through your mind tell you exactly what you need to buy, do, and be to join the "in" crowd. But what happens when someone hacks into the computer feed that everyone is receiving? This is a terrific choice for both teen and adult book discussion groups.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Pricey Pants

I have been following the story of the $65 million pants lawsuit with a growing sense of horror and disbelief. Even after a sensible verdict the case is apparently not over.

The reader comments on the Washington Post report are very instructive. Some see racial overtones, others a demented man bent on a verbatim interpretation of the law without any concern for its spirit and yet others think he had a right to sue and only got the amount a little wrong. And finally the one line comment that says it all "Only in the USA". As a relatively new arrival in this country, I could not agree more.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Drive Through Bookstore

I love browsing through bookstores and libraries but its not often that I buy anything. For one thing, relocation is part of my life and then I live in an apartment. It just does not makes sense to start a collection and then have to part with it because hauling it around is too complicated.

If however, there was a book vending machine at hand, I guess the temptation to get a book to take home would be too strong to resist. This is like being in front of a fully stocked up vending machine when you are famished and expecting to walk away without buying anything.

The logical next step to the book vending operation would be to allow people to key in their order to the machine remotely and pick it up like they do from a drive through pharmacy. The personal connections between long time customers and knowledgeable bookshop owners are a already thing of the past thanks to big box stores like Barnes and Noble. This could be the last nail in the coffin. There is something bizarre about having to hear or say "One copy of The Catcher in the Rye to go". Maybe then will supersize that order by throwing in a copy of "Of Mice and Men" for free.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

No Set Hours

My friend S works for one of Best Buy's competitors and the best perk of her job is unlimited vacation time. As long as you fulfill your annual goals and objectives mutually agreed upon by you and your supervisor, you can take as much time off as you like. I asked her incredulously "You mean there is no limit ?" and she clarified "There is no limit".

It turns out that the some people are able to take as much as two months of vacation without hurting their growth prospects while others can barely eke out a week. S is somewhere in between and absolutely loves it. She challenges herself to work harder and smarter all the time so she is able to enjoy more time off with her family. A win-win situation for both employee and company.

Sounds like Best Buy is doing something quite similar and hopefully the movement with turn viral and spread through all of corporate America. I have worked remotely and picked my own hours in the past. The advantages are obvious but there are some downsides too. The demarcation between work and home gets blurry. As long as you have access to the internet and phone you are never fully free.

Then the mantra of results-only work though appealing at first glance is not easily achievable. Face time is needed to build relationships that will be needed in a crisis when a cross functional team must be pulled together to resolve issues expeditiously. Individuals have different work styles and productivity patterns. Unless you are an individual contributor with no external dependencies you can only produce results only as fast as the slowest moving part in your organization.

It becomes necessary therefore, to scout for a WiFi connection while vacationing in the mountains just to make sure everything continues to be in motion while you are out so you don't have to work extra to make up for your absence. Even after factoring all the negatives, I love the freedom to work when I want to for as long as I want to. There is a lot to be said for not being corralled in a cubicle farm for forty plus hours every week for years.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Offbeat Jobs

Reading this NYT story about a man whose job is to keep expensive, antique violins fit by playing them made me ponder about unusual jobs and careers being that mine is very conventional. Career Builder has a very interesting alphabetical list but there are weirder lists.

Maybe its not so bad that someone can answer the question "What do you do for living ?" in less than five words and have conversation move on to more interesting things. Finding happiness in work can sometimes be less important than being able to find happiness elsewhere because of having work that provides a good, stable income.

The former could lead the from job to career while the later may result in some
usual reasons to quit and follow one's heart.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Counting Coins

An odometer for small change is a cool idea. Not sure how it is useful in a practical sense but I'd love to know how much I have in my bag full of loose change. Counting money was a part of everyday life in the 80s and 90s in India and an important skill to have. Yet, I don't recall being allowed to count real money either at home or school - money had changed too many hands and was considered the most filthy thing for a child to touch. The smaller currency notes were so grimy and tattered that you feared they would disintegrate at the next transaction.

Instead of the tactile experience involving real exchange with real money, they had us work on mental math drills to simulate the experience of paying for goods and services. At the grocery store, it was necessary to check the shopkeeper's calculation. Knowledge of the unitary method and being able to add long columns of numbers was essential. It never suprised my that a semi-illiterate shopkeeper selling rice, lentils oil and the like was faster at adding numbers than I was with my school education. The adults would explain it was his survival skill.

Maybe we owe our proficiency in arithmetic to our straitened circumstances but it is now part of the desi DNA. I push J as hard as my parents did to learn her multiplication tables and do arithmetic drills mentally.My Indian friends with young kids are no different either. I won't be surprised if J does the same with her children in a time technology would have rendered physical money complete irrelevant.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Degrees Of Freedom

I guess we all know our grandparents and great parents enjoyed far greater freedom to explore the world around them in their childhood than our kids do. The world is apparently not as safe as it once used to be or maybe we just have more data around how and why it is unsafe. It helps that families are smaller in size and an army of adults can focus on a relatively small number of children.

My grandfather would reminisce about his childhood and say his mother did a head count at the end of the day to make sure all the twelve children were accounted for. They had the whole village, the river and the woods to themselves during the day. Whatever the reasons, we keep our offspring tethered pretty close to the post.

The graphic in this article says it all. Compared to his great grandfather, Ed lives in a cage. Whereas J's great-grandfather swam across the Brahmaputra in his childhood, she swims in the shallow end of the pool in our community - and that is the high point of her day.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Kids And Money

I was reading a book to J this weekend called Growing Money. She has been curious about money and what it means to have or not have it, to spend or not to spend it. The book is a great primer on investing for kids even if they are too young (like J is) to fully understand. Some of the concepts will stick and at a later point in her life it will come together. The author mentions at the end of Chapter 2 that investments are inherently risky and you need to decide if you can stomach the ups and downs or would rather stay with slow and low growth.

I asked J which way she would go if gave her some money to go "invest". She responded "I'll go with the up and down". That would be interesting. Up to now, my sense has been that she is highly risk averse and takes time to warm up to new situations but she may very well surprise me by showing none of the conservativeness when it comes to handling money. Watching the Lauren Greenfield movie Kids + Money was instructive in light of J's earlier comment.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Wasted Read

I saw a huge stack of paperbacks by the corner of the leasing office in my apartment community when I stopped by to pay my rent a few days ago. I asked Cheryl about them and she said "Someone left them here. Go ahead and see if there is anything you want to take".

That was in irresistible offer except that the books were all drugstore romance novels. After spending a good twenty minutes going through sixty odd books it seemed unfair that I could not find even one to take home and so I selected a Harold Robbins number - The Predators. The blurb said it was the best of A Stone For Danny Fisher and The Carpetbaggers. I had read both in my early teens and seemed to remember liking them. I figured something that had a little of both could not be too bad. I was clearly acting out of childhood nostalgia.

The book proved impossible to read. The action was choppy and incoherent and chapters ended in a couple of pages as characters bounced around haphazardly in space and time. The sex was as crude as it was gratuitous. Even as I griped inwardly, I reminded myself that I should not have expected any better. However, I seemed to recall a much slower pace and a real storyline in Danny Fisher. I skipped chapters entirely to see if the threads would come together but that did not work either.

In about an hour I gave up and went to sleep. Not only was time wasted but it blighted memories of books I had enjoyed as a teen. When the time comes, I want to introduce J to the books I liked growing up and now I wonder if that would be prudent Danny Fisher had been on that list. Maybe, I should revisit my entire list and see what still makes the grade.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Naturally Chaotic

My mother was always big on concealed storage - there must be a few acres hidden in the wall to wall, floor to ceiling wardrobes in our house. She would love the idea of creating storage in the staircase. Growing up, I never saw our house in a state of disarray except before and after a move which happened several times. I have no idea how my mother managed to keep everything is such perfect order.

My own apartment has very little storage space besides the walk-in closets. Managing clutter is an ongoing challenge and I have taken refuge in that entropy is meant to increase with time and therefore chaos is the natural order of the universe that common mortals cannot hope to contain for too long. It takes J all of seven minutes to undo a weekend's worth of setting things right and in their place. Comes a time when one just gives up from sheer exhuastion.

As of this writing I have the couch completely dismantled with the cushions and pillows lined up on the carpet. J and her friend Rashmi have been "sky diving" on it and pretending they are animals on Old McDonald's farm underneath two chairs covered by my mother's old sari to provide a tent-like effect. Though the two activities appear quite unrelated there is a method to the madness. I have learnt never to question the logic and rationale of J's games.

Getting her to cleanup after herself is challenging and not because she will not comply with the request. She will survey the mayhem for a while and determine an equitable division of labor. Anything that comes out of the kitchen is for me, anything that comes from the toy basket is hers. All else is under dispute. The books scattered around the couch are for me to pick up and put away because I was reading them to her. Rashmi contributed to the mess to so its not fair that J be tasked with cleaning up after "our guest". I have to pitch in.

It falls to me to put the couch back together and put the sari away because "It's too difficult for a little person like me" As we go about our assigned tasks, J will call out exceptions to the previously agreed upon division citing reasons such as "I am only a little child" or "I am not strong enough" or "I am all the way sleepy" and finally "Not fair that I have to do more work than Mommy"

Needless to say, distractions abound along the way to the clean up itself. The box of markers and crayons will be disastrously close to a piece of construction paper and the temptation to create an impromptu "masterpiece" (as J refers to all her works of art) will prove too strong to resist. Then a pair of scissors will show up suddenly and the masterpiece will be reduced to fine confetti and scattered around the room.

At this point, the clean up duties will be renegotiated once more to account for the incremental chaos. A long forgotten bead necklace will surface at an inopportune moment and J will want the bracelets that go with it right now, this minute. Her world will come crashing down if the said bracelets are not rounded up. Of course neither of us have a faintest idea where they may be found.

One a bad day, this incident can produce copious tears and refusal to move forward with any of the assigned clean up tasks. "I am so sad that I can never wear my bracelets again and show them to my friends. Those were my most special favorite bracelets" I am sure some kid like J must have provided inspiration for the
"If You Give..." genre.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Home And Alone

News of the living goddess from Nepal brought back memories of Kumari Puja in my childhood in India. For a few hours each year a some little girls would be worshiped like they were living goddesses. I was one of them too - a couple of times. We looked forward to it, felt special and most importantly so safe that nothing could touch us. In being elevated to the status of a deity, even if only temporarily we became convinced of the divinity within us and all the protections that afforded.

By when we were in our teens and had made way to younger prepubescent girls to be worshiped on Kumari Puja, we realized how different the rules were for men and women. To be equal would have been a dream come true. Far from being revered as a manifestation of Goddess Durga,
our place in society was anything but safe or secure. While the Reuters story is replete with stereotypical notions about India complete with the de rigueur mention of Sati, some facts are undeniable.

"Women are discriminated against in every possible way -- in villages, in cities, in the home, in the work place, everywhere," said Brototi Dutta from Lawyers Collective, a national network of lawyers fighting for the rights of abused women.

"They are beaten at home, sexually abused, face harassment on the streets and at the work place ... even when they are raped, they are often treated by police as the culprit, rather than the victim and blamed for wearing 'provocative' clothing."

Even for a miniscule part of the respect we were shown as young girls during a Kumari Puja, India may have been a far more hospitable to the female diaspora in the west who prefer to soldier on in a foreign land (alone sometimes) than come "home" to feel constantly violated. Evidently Swami Vivekananda's words "All nations have attained greatness by paying proper respect to women. That country and that nation which do not respect women have never become great, nor will ever be in future" largely fell on deaf ears in his own motherland. But every once in a while there is a heart warming story about a man who did right by the woman in his life and proved the wisdom of Swamiji's words.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Paid To Learn

Love the idea of paying kids to score better grades Traditional wisdom would say paying kids to make their grades or read a book is strictly a no-no. It goes against the very grain of what good education is all about. Teachers would frown upon parents who bribe children with financial incentive to study instead of helping them discover the joy of learning. Maybe there is a fine line between bribe and incentive, between bait and reward. Scholarships and prizes are respectable because they are awarded for exceptional merit or achievement. Maybe for kids in difficult socio-economic circumstances, staying on in school is an achievement worth rewarding just as much as scholastic excellence is for the rest of the kids.

Sometimes even the best and most time-tested traditional wisdom must make way for innovative ideas that address modern, non-traditional circumstances. In India, they try to keep the kids from slums in school by giving them free meals and sometimes extra portions they can take back to their families. Just for the food, the families let the kids attend school. While the education does not take the majority very far, some do end up making good use of it and in that the system could be considered a success.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Timed Intervals

I don't count the number of hours per day I spend in front of the computer but I know that it is long enough not be good news for my health. Just as every well-informed smoker is not ready to quit, neither is every desk and cubicle bound slouch up for a more wholesome lifestyle.

A program that tells you to take a break sounds like a great idea. Along with this, reminders to drink a glass of water, a noisy alarm for a missed lunch and an automated shutdown at 6:00 p.m. would make the workday a lot saner than it is today. It is funny how as adults we try to impose discipline and structure into the lives of our kids when our own lives often miss both.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Memory And Hope

This quote will remain stuck in my head for a while

“Memories and hope are not so different; one is ‘having done’ the other is ‘to do.’ Neither constitutes action. You are what you do; thus, if you do nothing, you are nobody. If you once did great things, you think you are great. You coast along on dead, preserved laurels, lifeless and wasting away."

In completely different contexts than the writer's, I have lived on a combination of memories and hope their balance altering based on my frame of mind. Comes a time when the past is so far away that is glow dims instead of lighting the path ahead. That has been a sign for me to let go and unremember if possible. But hope has been quite another thing - it is what keeps me going. Of course hope cannot thrive on inaction. I like what Barbara Kingsolver said about Hope

The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Shoo Away Music

At the Spring Carnival at J's elementary school, I was surprised to hear the 60s pop music playing through the public address system. The PTA crowd is in their 30s so it was not the kind of music they would have grown up with. Listening to The Everly Brothers and The Monkees, with an occasional Beatles and Rolling Stones number thrown in for good measure was an unexpected surprise. The kids seemed to be having fun with it too.

After reading this news story about playing Cliff Richard's music to keep trouble makers away I wondered if J's school was using Yellow Submarine by Then He Kissed Me to similar end. I kept a constant eye on J but have to admit there was no signs of any troublemaking despite the chaotic fairground atmosphere. Maybe this is a time-tested trick for keeping miscreants at bay.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Repurposed Biology

For sci-fi fans, this Rudy Rucker commentary in Newsweek on repurposing biology for our own needs is nothing out of the ordinary. But for the rest of us, it is a bizarre picture of the future :

Why would starlets settle for breast implants when they can grow supplementary mammaries? Hipsters will install living tattoo colonies of algae under their skin. Punk rockers can get a shocking dog-collar effect by grafting on a spiky necklace of extra fingers with colored nails.

And why be hung up on having your body all in one piece? Be like the state of Michigan; abandon contiguity. Who wouldn’t like a free-ranging extra hand that scuttles under the bed or out to the garbage shed? And it’d be great to have an extra eyeball that flaps around on hummingbird wings.

I sure hope I don't live long enough to see any of this and worse. It is for a reason that the Chinese used "May you live in interesting times" as a curse.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Without A Planner

A cancelled meeting brings me more joy these days than an unexpected ice-cream treat brought me in my childhood. Unlike an ice-cream that was never taken away from me after it was given, a cancelled meeting is always a placeholder for a couple of new ones. To have a year without a schedule would be like being on paid vacation for twelve. Too bad, that little people who are cogs in the wheel don't get to do this even if boosts their productivity.

When someone emails or calls to say, "Let's meet on Tuesday at 3", the appropriate response is: "I'm not keeping a schedule for 2007, so I can't commit to that, but give me a call on Tuesday at 2:45 and if I'm available, I'll meet with you."

Or, if it's important, say, "You know what, let's meet right now."

Love the terms structured procrastination and strategic incompetence. Wish those would past muster performance reviews.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Socially Handicapped

My friend S recently became a dad. His email to me conveying the glad tidings said "Look me up on Orkut for pictures of the baby". I am on professional networking sites but have never been able to make the leap to social networking. With everyone and their grandmother on Orkut these days you give up your right to remain under the radar the moment you sign up.

When I chatting with his wife, she said "We haven't done the online album yet. All our friends are on Orkut so we put the picture there". I don't blame them. For new parents there is way too much to do. If this is an easy and effective way to share baby pictures then why not.

Not being on Orkut comes in the way of effective social interaction and this is not the first time either. I hope I never get to the point where I become the mom who has a profile on Facebook much to the consternation and embarrassment of her teenaged daughter. Unless my survival absolutely depends on it, I will always stay away from social networking sites. Apparently I have done right in not posting any pictures of J online, ever.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Good Food

My neighbor sent her son over with some upma, sambar and mango pickles hearing from J that I was not feeling well. I fell to the steaming hot food like a famine victim. Everything tasted like manna from heaven. I am sure Sirisha is a great cook but it was her gesture that gave her food its exceptional taste. It got me thinking about how the taste of what I cook for dinner reflects my day and my mood.

On a good day ordinary dal, rice and chicken curry tastes delicious - even J asks for more. But on a rough day, everything is way off - the rice is soggy, the dal is overcooked and the curry entirely tasteless. Same cook, same ingredients and yet completely different outcomes. I know there is an emotional problem I am ignoring when I can't get food to taste the way I want it to. There are women I know who can be counted on to reproduce the recipe exactly each time - I wonder if it takes a certain stability and continuity about their lives for them to be able to do so. Sirisha's food said simplicity, harmony, peace and quiet and I think I imbued all of that as I ate. In a while the fever was gone too.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Small Is Perfect

The Time story on 37signals is a modern day retelling of an old adage - too many cooks spoil the broth, so don't do it. Even after eight years since founding they are only eight employee strong - just that is an amazing achievement.

The story has so many lessons for elephantine organizations where the moving parts cannot keep pace with each other, wheels are reinvented all the time because no one knew several old ones existed. The hapless customer has to wait for what feels like eternity to get an upgrade on a product that was over-priced to begin with. The smallest tweak requires "customization" that may be rendered unupportable in future releases unless you continue to pay for it. The 37signals subscription model is just perfect for everyone :

Subscribing to the Web-based software costs $12 to $149 a month, depending on the amount of disk space and the number of features you use. The thousands of paying users--Fried won't say exactly how many--provide 37signals with a steady revenue stream. The subscription model minimizes the up-front cost for small businesses and makes software spending more predictable for firms worried about cash flow. The monthly fees include ongoing service and updates.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Missing Bees

The disappearing honey-bees have been in the news for a while but this Washington Post article talks about something the most of the news coverage did not - the human emotional resonance to what is happening with the bees.

Our fuzzy, hard-working, sweetness-producing icons have become our most powerful Rorschach test.

As go the bees, so go our hopes and fears for the future.

No one knows for sure what is causing the bees to disappear yet it is a cause celebre and with good reason too as the author points out :

The disappearance of the bees nonetheless has mythic depth. It captures intuitions people have about the human condition. A hive is an organism, like a nation. It may be made up of individuals, but it produces results beyond the imagination of any one of its members. To think of one unraveling is profoundly unsettling.

What happens, then, if the beehive is unsustainable? Kelly wonders. Will the new hive mind of the Internet someday fly off while we are at lunch, leaving us suddenly dumb and alone?

What institutions are next?

Naturalist Barry Lopez wonders if the disappearance of the bees is a metaphor for the end of the federal government.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Out Of The Woodwork

Fun little IM conversation at work :

C : Yo
Me : Yoda
C : time for a quick ?
Me : sure
C : who in X team is on point to work with our crew on the production incident with the Y app on Z platform ?
Me : B mainly but there is a whole slew of people that want status every minute
C : very interesting...
Me : why ?
C : because when I met with them to discuss the impacts to their apps due to changes in our architecture everyone in the room was kicking and screaming that they did not own the Y app on Z platform – not now, not ever.
Me : typical of X team. Toss the hot potato around to see who'll catch it and then make it their baby
C : so I figured I'd check with you to see if the prod incident had shaken someone out of the woodwork ;)
Me: it sure it. it shook out a whole army. Let me fwd you the latest on the incident email thread so you have all the names.
C : sweetness. That would be perfect !

Lesson Learnt : There is nothing like a major snafu and a lot of executive attention to bring reluctant application owners out of the woodwork and acknowledge their part in the causing it.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Vignettes From DC - Part 1

Janice her two kids, J and I were in DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Pathological multi-tasker that I am, I decided to swing by the Indian Embassy to get some passport stuff done while I was in town so the trip would be "productive" and as well as fun. I must have been hallucinating.

We walked the kids from Dupont Circle to the Embassy ignoring their protests. Five or six blocks on a windy morning, the walk was not very fun. Upon arriving there, I found that I was in queue behind sixty people to even drop off the paperwork. The magic window of opportunity would be over in an hour. The woman behind the counter was highly disgruntled and screamed at me when I had the temerity to ask her a question. It seemed her life's purpose was to embarrass the heck out of any customer who so much as dared to walk up to her. Groveling worked a lot better as one old gentleman was proving by example.

I stood there considering my options. We could sit around for the next hour and still miss by a whisker with sixty people ahead of me in the queue. Also, Madame at the counter had taken a very dim view of me even before I had been granted audience with her to review my application. Chances were that she would find something terribly wrong with it and ask me to return with corrections the next day.

It has been four years since I was last in India but that is a poor excuse for being taken by surprise by Madame's MO. She was merely being herself, i.e. a disgruntled government employee vested with powers completely out of proportion to her salary. While returning to Dupont Circle, I thought about how easy it is to get used to a well ordered life even after spending most of my life in India.

It got me thinking about the popular stereotypes about NRIs who return to India and act like they never belonged there. If I were back home, dealing with something like this, would I have felt any different, accepted it as the way things are meant to be and not whined about it. As I recall, whining was allowed - we all did that but we did not expect better or different. To express surprise or righteous indignation would be considered very odd. I think I did a little of both that morning and felt rather silly for doing so.

Yet in a perverse way, for a little while I was home again among well known things grown somewhat unfamiliar with time and distance. It felt like coming out of the wardrobe in the Narnia Chronciles when I stepped out on the street and into America once again. India had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Time For Home

After a long time, I had opportunity to spend time and socialize with an all-desi group of relatively recent vintage. Most were in their mid to late twenties. They came to the US for their graduate studies and stayed on. The ties with India are strong, they make one trip a year and might very well return if the opportunity came along at the right time. To hang out with them was to have a slice of contemporary India placed conveniently at my doorstep. I haven't been back in four years and I am sure to experience culture shock when I do get to make my trip and may not be even able to fit it.

One woman's entire wardrobe is from Mumbai - except for skirts and jeans which she buys locally for their superior fit. To me she was the cool, hip face of urban India which is about understated ethnicity blending seamlessly with western style. They all work hard, party harder, are big on social networking (Orkut, MySpace,Twitter and the like) and are constantly connected. They can SMS faster than I can type on a computer.

Being tech-savvy they are frustrated about their jobs that involve older technology and could give an arm and leg to be part of the Indian start-up action. However they enjoy the lack of pressure from family to get married and start a family too much to consider returning just right now. Apparently most of their parents complain that they have grown very selfish after coming to the US and maybe there is some truth in that.

Instead of making the traditional rites of passage at the prescribed age, they have decided to take a sabbatical from such obligations and spend the time to savor new experiences that range from checking out a male strip club downtown to bungee jumping in South America. Clearly, they are not here for the money, it is merely an escape from the pressures to conform. With the right kind of money they could have had the life they have here and be living in any major city in India, but family would be too close for comfort and would get to know too much.

Despite the dizzying pace of progress in India, it is still impossible for a woman to pair a bikini top with low rise jeans and go on a leisurely stroll. They like it here because they can do it. One of the guys in the group has a Korean girlfriend and there is clearly no matrimonial intent. A couple of years ago, he had back-packed through Europe with his then Puerto Rican girlfriend. Back home the parents are looking for a match for him. He will resist them until he has had his full share of fun. It almost seemed like they were making up for not being able to rebel like they wanted to in the teen years.

Maybe for all of them, the mid to late thirties would be when, going back to India would feel right - they might be parents by then and having extended family at hand to raise the kids would be very welcome. Hopefully, they'd still be able to make a career in the Web2.0 space or whatever else is the "occupational karmabhoomi" for techies at that time.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Look

Friday at last and not a minute too soon. Work had been brutal the past week and Sheila longed to get on the road and head over to Vibha's. She remembered she had not picked up a gift for Vibha yet - the answer to What would Vibha really like was not as simple as it had once been.

The farmer's market was an unplanned detour just before she hit the freeway. Maybe inspiration would strike as she wandered around fresh produce and fruit. As she tried to decide between the Black Forest cake and the even more decadent Pineapple Cheesecake, she noticed an exceptionally beautiful woman looking at her somewhat curiously.

It was a look Sheila was used to for as long as she remembered but it still made her smile inwardly. The woman wore a black tube top with Bebe sequined across her substantial bust. Her short hair style accentuated her perfect features. The vividly colored butterfly tattoo on her left ankle drew attention to her slender legs. She was the kind of woman who is so used to arresting attention that she has grown blasé about it. Yet she was just the kind of woman that took notice of Sheila and wondered what it was about her that made you want to look. She was not perfect or beautiful in the classical sense.

Her first crush from the high school days had commented when she smiled she looked a lot like Pamella Bordes - back in the day Bordes was in the news a lot and tabloids were full of her pictures. The likeness was undeniable. While her grandmother was convinced she was not pretty enough to find a good match in the marriage market, men who came into Sheila's life often told her she was attractive in a hard to describe way but almost destructively so; chances of her finding someone interested in her as a potential wife were slim to none - she just didn't have that vibe. Sheila smiled at the woman in black and she smiled back confused and embarrassed at being caught looking.

Back on the road, Sheila called Vibha to let her know she was about two hours away. "Great ! I'll get dinner started." Vibha sounded happy and excited. "I got you some Black Forest cake." Sheila told her "How did you that I have been craving chocolate for days ? With Gaurav out, I couldn't get some from the store." Vibha said and both of them felt the long forgotten comfort of a very old friendship.



Saturday, June 02, 2007

First Best Friend

When J writes long notes to her best friend Katie, I remember my first best friend ever. Her name was Rinku. Like J, we were both about five then and that is the end of all similarities between the friendships. Katie is a third grader J first met at another kid's birthday party. At eight years old she is not a whole lot bigger than J. Remarkably mature, well-mannered and sweet natured, Katie easily wows the parents. Apparently, Katie loved J right away.

J kept begging me to call her mother and set up a play date for the two of them. Having briefly met a mother at a school event earlier, I was not sure how the request would be received but decided to ask her anyways. The opportunity came on the day of the Spring Carnival at J's school. Katie and her mom, Patty were there too.

I broached the subject of the play-date. The expression on Patty's face was one of amusement meeting surprise. Knowing how badly J wanted to play with Katie, I offered her my phone number despite that look. She said "Don't worry about it, we'll figure something out later"

Katie comes to play with Lindsey's kids and J bumps into her either at the tot-lot or at the pool. They are delighted to see each other and enjoy every minute they have together. Back home J writes "Dear Katie, I loved playing with you today. You are my best friend. I love you. I want to play with you again. Please come to my house. Your Best Friend, J" She asks me to help her spell the bigger words. When I go to pick her up at from after-school care, I find even longer notes written to Katie in her backpack.

I ask her what she wants to do with those notes and she says "I will give them to Katie when I meet her". Since the meetings are completely by chance, J never has an opportunity. The notes gather in an envelope in her room. I can imagine Patty reading them with a supercilious smile playing on her face if one of them ever made their way to Katie. Rinku and I were always together. Our parents connected because of us.

The best days of my childhood were when I saw Rinku and her parents come down the road to our house on their Vespa scooter. If anything spelt utter happiness that did. We went over to her house frequently. Then I moved to a different town, we lost contact and grew up. Yet for about one year, I enjoyed the special magic that your first childhood best friend brings to your life - you never forget.

Reading J's notes brings a lump to my throat knowing that I can't help her cross the cultural and racial barriers to reach the first best friend of her life. I don't know how to tell her that adults can sometimes be prejudiced to the point where they end up hurting those they love the most. Patty chooses not notice how Katie's face lights up when she sees J. When she grows up, J will probably remember the notes of love and affection that were so painstakingly written but never given, the bitter-sweet longing to be with a friend that remained just that - a longing.

There is a lot a parent can give a child, we may even want to take upon ourselves their unhappiness and disappointment so they can have only joy. But try as you might, you cannot be their shield against the world. Just like everyone else, they must go out on a limb, take chances and sometimes come home hurt.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tipping Jars

It was common to see grown-ups pay gratuity for nothing to all service providers back home in India when I was growing up. The mailman got a bonus during Dusshera as did the milkman, the domestic help, gardener, chauffer, barber, fishmonger among a host of others. Anyone who touched your life even at tangent expected to get tipped. It did not matter that none of them went beyond the call of duty and most often they were seriously negligent about it.

It was that time of year when you paid them for their existence. In the Diwali parties that followed, ladies would share with each other how much they paid whom only to be chided by the others for their extravagance and raising the bar for everyone else. Yet no one said it was unnecessary to pay anything at all or encouraged the community to stop. It was a cultural thing, you went with the flow, did not seek rationale and tried to keep the tips "reasonable"

It is interesting to see someone comment about a similar trend in the US. From experience it seems like people should not be filling those tip jars up if they are not getting any personal attention or out of the norm service. The commentator correctly points out :

Tipping used to be confined to service-oriented occupations: waitresses, taxi drivers, doormen. Now it has spread to businesses where I seem to be doing most of the work.

Those tipping jars may well be the first step down a slippery slope that descends into a cesspool of corruption. It is never a good idea to get people used to the idea that they can get money for doing nothing.