Monday, December 31, 2007

Crummy Parent

Being a parent is fairly difficult business and some of us are clearly not fit to be one. Minna's Crummy Mummy And Me is a case in example and sadly fact and fiction are not far apart at all.

Thanks to J, I am getting to read modern juvenile fiction and learning to see the world from a child's vantage point. It is so easy to forget how I used to think and feel at her age and sometimes even being able to remember does not help because our circumstances are so dissimilar that the what applied for me does not even remotely apply to her.

Read two poems recently on a similar theme - reflecting back on their parents as adults and the verdict is quite similar to young Minna's in Crummy Mummy And Me - "I don't think my mum's fit to be a parent, really I don't". I would rather that J told me I was a disappointment as parent now than twenty years later when I would have no way left to undo the mistakes.

My Papa's Waltz
by Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing is not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Flash Cards
by Rita Dove

In math I was the whiz kid, keeper
of oranges and apples. What you don’t understand,
master, my father said; the faster
I answered, the faster they came.

I could see one bud on the teacher’s geranium,
one clear bee sputtering at the wet pane.
The tulip tree always dragged after heavy rain
so I tucked my head as my boots slapped home.

My father put up his feet after work
and relaxed with a highball and The Life of Lincoln.
After supper we drilled and I climbed the dark

before sleep, before a thin voice hissed
numbers as I spun on a wheel. I had to guess.
Ten, I kept saying, I’m only ten.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Virtually There

J is always brimming with questions about India and specially Kolkata because her grandparents live there. The memories of the time she spent in India as a baby have long since faded and no amount of reminiscing is enough to revive their vividness. She needs to go back once more, spend time so she can form new impressions that will stay on. In the meanwhile, I try to give her a virtual tour - pictures of Lake Market, Durga Puja and the concept of para (neighborhood).

J's yen for India could well be part of a larger trend unique to her generation. I hear about a lot of kids like her growing up in the West, who love the Indian experience to the point that they beg their parents to stay on forever, or in the least leave them behind to spend time with extended family. It is not surprising that some of choose attending high-school in India like this blogger reports.

Recently, I was with a bunch of first and second generation desi parents (and grandparents) and conversation turned to kids and how they cope with multiple cultural and national identities. One older gentleman had a theory that I found very intriguing. He said, in the 50s and 60s desis were a small minority in America and had to struggle very hard to fit in. They were anxious to acquire the accent and any other external trappings of the western world so they could blend and not stand out.

Such parents did not present a strong, positive role model for Indian identity to their kids. As such, the kids grew up confused and unsure of their relationship with India and everyone in their family who was still back there. It did not help that a lot of these parents were not highly qualified professionals that came in the later decades plus there were none of the IT jobs either. A bulk of them had to start out at low-paying jobs and struggle to make ends meet even as they kept up appearances of having made it in the land of milk and honey.

However from the 80s forward, the desi immigrant did not try nearly as hard fit in - there was no compelling need to do so. By then they had the strength of numbers. Increasingly, they had the qualifications to land high paying jobs and actually live the American dream without needing pretense and artifice. Secure in their social standing in America, they were able to instill pride and confidence about their ethnic identity among their kids.

As a result, these kids did not feel particularly confused or conflicted about growing up Indian in America. To them, the experience was not any different from that of a Tamil kid born in Chennai growing up in Delhi. They are equally at ease in both worlds and think of both as their homes. These are the kids who have grown up watching Hindi soaps on TV at home - they are excited about pairing kurtas with jeans to middle school. They are less likely go brunette with blond highlights to look "anything but desi".

Even if there are exceptions, there is some merit to this theory based on what we see around us.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Exam Meritocracy

Interesting CSM article on how the American school system stacks up against other industrialized countries :

Singapore's Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said it best in a Newsweek interview last year: "We both have meritocracies," he said. "[America's] is a talent meritocracy; ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well – like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America."

Those are also the things, I always thought were missing in the Indian system. The more things change the more they remain the same. We now have the unconventional schools designed to cater to an elite minority with a holistic curriculum is but "exam meritocracy" is still part of our cultural DNA. The kids attending these non-mainstream schools must go the extra mile to be at par with everyone else when it comes to taking state and national level tests. We realize the need for "talent meritocracy" but are not particularly good at fostering it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Little House

J and I watched Little House On The Prairie - a first for both of us and we loved it equally. It got us talking about being brave, taking chances, respect and acceptance of cultures that are alien to our own and finding joy in the smallest things that life brings our way. Had she been older I may have asked her to read this as well.

"Because I have traveled, I can see other universes in the eyes of strangers. Because I have traveled, I know what parts of me I cannot deny and what parts of me are simply the choices I make. I know the blessings of my own table and the warmth of my own bed. I know how much of life is pure chance, and how great a gift I have been given simply to be who I am. ...

"If we don't offer ourselves to the unknown, our senses dull. Our world becomes small and we lose our sense of wonder. Our eyes don't lift to the horizon; our ears don't hear the sounds around us. The edge is off our experience, and we pass our days in a routine that is both comfortable and limiting."

Kent Nerburn, Letters to my Son, New World, 1994, pp. 114-115

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Least Likely To Succeed

Ashwin was “the least likely to succeed” in our 6th grade class and it remained that way till the 10th. He seemed to wear this badge that was collectively bestowed upon him with a certain gritty pride. He was unfazed by anyone else’s academic or extra-curricular accomplishments having in his mind checked out of the school system and all its stipulations of success. That was then and this is now.

In the last few years, Ashwin has achieved spectacular career success and has also scoured the planet for the whereabouts of at least sixty percent our graduating class. As I write, he is trawling cyberspace, looking up old address books, contacting parents scattered across India to find out those among us who are still unaccounted for. My email address is on his list and I think I know which idiot “outed” me. Since my phone numbers are unlisted and I have not been in touch with any of my former classmates since the end of high school, I think I am relatively safe. Ashwin regularly calls people and updates the distribution on the conversation. Clearly, the notions of individual space and privacy are lost on him.

His mails are a interesting – he is still funny like he used to be. There are pictures of him and his wife at his office parties – given his line of work he is often around celebrities. You get to see good old Ashwin double chin and all, flanked by wife and rising Bollywood starlet looking very pleased with himself and I don’t blame him. Then there are pictures and news of everyone else. Nandini is fund-raising for an orphanage in our town back home; there are pictures of her and her kids and in-laws from her last trip to India.

Rohit, the one time class topper is yet to find his groove the dread IIT-IIM combination notwithstanding. He recently found work in Mumbai and is seen at a fancy restaurant with Ashwin who is picking the tab with obvious relish – the bitter irony of fate and all that. Juhi used to have a fabulous singing voice, oodles of attitude and ambition. Ashwin informs the distribution that she is teaching chemistry at college in Ahmedabad and is expecting her third child. There is no mention of a parallel career in music so it is safe to assume none exists.

Avik’s wife had a still-born child a few years ago and is expecting again. Ashwin exhorts us all to pray for mother and child. He has the phone numbers of many of our teachers listed along with ours and we are routinely encouraged to get and stay in touch.

I am very happy for Ashwin – he used to be my best friend once. We shared some of the happiest days of our childhood together. Whenever he flunked an exam (which was more rule than exception in his case ) and felt low, I told him that success in school did not correlate to success in life and I am very pleased to see that I was right. I don’t know about everyone else but I always knew he would do well in life.

Back in his teens, he seemed to have it together. He never sought affirmation – he had a sense that he was different but not disabled in anyway. He was fun, flirty and generous to a fault. Now that he has arrived in life, he seems to want for our class to stand up and applaud him, undo that “least likely to succeed” tag when he has undone it long ago on his own steam. He has this terrible need prove that he has made it despite all expectations to the contrary. Who would have known, the well hidden scars of childhood can remain tender and raw so long. I think I am doing him a favor for old time’s sake by remaining silent.

** Not real names.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Practical Parenting

Being the best parent you can possibly be is not always easy. You have the best intent and the imagination but have just too much to juggle to translate thought to action - at least as quickly as you would like. One daddy goes the extra mile to make the coolest brown-bag in the class for this kid. Last week, J was down with a cold and went to bed directly after coming home from daycare in the evening.

The house looked like a mess and would take a good hour to set right. Before falling asleep, she had mumbled what she wanted for dinner - her favorite Bengali comfort food. That would take some cooking - in normal circumstances I would have tried to finish up the mismatched leftovers in the fridge but that was not an option today.

In the ideal world, I would have straightened the house first - J visibly lights up when chaos is replaced by order and is eager to assist in making things right and neat. I would have cooked her the meal she wanted, put on her favorite music, lighted the candles on the table, given her a warm sponge bath, changed her and then sat down to dinner. It would have perked her up, made her happy despite not feeling well. That look of surprise on her face mingled with joy would have made the effort entirely worthwhile.

In real life, I left the chaos around the house alone knowing she was hungry, fixed her dinner, sat beside her in her bed with and fed her while she was still half asleep. I tucked her back in and she went back to sleep peacefully her stomach full. To J, that evening with blend in the blur of our humdrum life - unremarkable in every way. Had I been able to pull off what I had wanted to, it might have become a memorable day in childhood. Such opportunities come often to a parent's life - they are faced with the choice of getting the job done in a practical, sensible way or going the extra mile like the brown bag dad and creating the stuff of beautiful memories.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Year End Listmania

There is always listmania associated with the end of the year. The ten best (or worst) books and movies, ten celebrities that staged a comeback this year and ten that disappeared into oblivion, the top ten archaeological disoveries, hottest fashion trends, the top ten Bushisms of 2007 - and many others.

Before everyone with an internet connection got a crack at putting out their year end lists, this used to be the media's gift to its consumers - a time capsule of various lists that recaped the year that had been. In a field bristling with contending events and personalities, the top ten would naturally be rife with omission and oversight.

Yet without these lists, the year would have come and gone for nothing, there would be no documented history of the high and low points, there would be no looking back at the remarkable moments, pondering the swift passage of time or the utter futility of list making itself.

Today, no two lists are alike and each represents the personality of the individual or collective culling it. Each year end list is one version of the events and the list maker's commentary on them. There is no single official list or uber-list and its only fair because people have lived the year differently and will remember it in their own way - list the top ten from their vantage point.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Desire Path

Learned the English phrase equivalent of pagdandi -it is called desire path. Both expressions are evocative and beautiful. There is the path that was made to be trod and then the one that was trod until it was made. Often the two lay close to each other but the later is more intimate and inviting. But for the former, the later might have never been conceived.

As with most things in life, what we have or are given is rarely that which we truly desire. While a shorter walk may often be the goal, sometimes it is hard to rationalize the need for the desire path - the planned alternative is just as good and gets you there just as fast.

This is not unlike some of the unconventional and challenging choices people make in their lives, giving up the path of least resistance in the process.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Odds And Ends

Read this amazing interview with science fiction writer John Sladek. I have hardly read any SF - I find all the gizomology and futurology way too intimidating to come close to the story itself. But after reading this interview, I am tempted to give one of Sladek's books a shot.

Thanks to being exposed to the retail excesses of the season and some of the theme-park style holiday decorations we see in the neighborhood, J is missing the obvious lack of "holiday spirit" in our household. I could have stood up a tree in the corner of the living room but she would have wanted to go the whole nine-yards and I don't even know what that entails. Truth be told am not too keen on finding out and creating more work for myself.

As a compromise, we snuggled in the couch ate apples and checked out some Epicurious videos on the holiday cooking - chocolate, gingerbread houses, cookies and the like. J loves almost anything to do with cooking so this worked out quite well. As an unexpected bonus, we got to chance to see this Alice Waters feature titled Edible Schoolyard. It is a wonderful idea and how I wish it grew popular and became part of every child's public school experience.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


I met my friend Yvonne after three years yesterday. Though years younger than me, she and I clicked right from the first time we saw each other. She was at the time with a guy she thought might be "the one". Some days when they had an argument she was not quite as sure and wondered if she move out of Justin's apartment and be more independent, seek out different life experiences after all she was only twenty two.

When she asked me for an opinion, I always told her to follow her gut because I did not know what else to say. As I got to know her better, I began to feel protective about her like an elder sister might - Yvonne was exceptionally bright and articulate. I would hate for anyone or anything to dampen her joie de vivre or eagerness to learn.

When she called me and said she was back in town and wanted to meet for lunch I was overjoyed. For some reason, I felt a twinge of disappointment at how little she had changed. Except for the wedding ring, it was the same Yvonne from three years ago.

As we ate, I realized that my expectation of seeing a dramatic change in a woman after marriage is a cultural thing that would obviously not apply to Yvonne who had been living with Justin for three years before the ring made it official. The girls back home I remembered emerging like a butterfly from its chrysalis after marriage had been virgins before they became wives. It was a beautiful transformation. If Sushmita Sen is to be believed that is a thing of the past in India too.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Girls

She calls them "my girls" and is very much in awe of her endowments. When that is the case, people around both male and female can usually tell. The subject of her boobs comes up in casual conversation often and quite effortlessly. Recently she was stopped for speeding on her way to work and got in late. While recounting the episode she asked jokingly if we thought flashing the young cop "her girls" may have gotten her off the hook. There was a lot of snickering when one guy mimed the cop's reaction to the unexpected display.

Her "poor" younger sister who is squat and flat, recently gifted her a silk blouse that flatters her generous curves. Apparently she had bought it for herself but did not like how it sat on her and gave it to someone who could wear it better. It was interesting how this sister is treated as an object of sympathy and condescension even when she has a few advanced degrees and a job that pays very well. Both her kids are in college and she is married to her high-school sweetheart who is doing very well for himself as a dentist. They have a nice house in the burbs that is close to being paid off. Not such a shabby a life one would think.

Yet for the want of a decent rack she turns into an object of pity from her sister who is a high school drop-out, a teen mother who by her own admission has married several times for money but has never been able to lay her hands on any of it. In her late forties, she lives in someone's half-finished basement and is trying to finish college and "find" herself. The only nice clothes she has are the ones her sister's hand me downs.

I guess it is all about balance. The squat and flat sister has accomplished enough in life to not need a sizable chest to buttress her self worth. For the other sister, her substantial chest is apparently enough to offset everything that she does not have. It makes for an interesting equation and is a testament to the amazing power of adipose tissue around a pair of glands.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pictures And Words

If there is television in a public place permanently tuned to CNN, there is no escaping the interminable spectacle of celebrity obsession. Eight out of ten times, I happen by the water-cooler, I am brought up to speed on the latest in the lives of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. For the longest time, I wondered what useful purpose this continuous stream of information about Spears, Lohan et al served in my life. I was about to find the answer in my own television-less household this past weekend.

J goes "Eww Gross !" anytime she sees an on-screen kiss. When I ask her what about a kiss grosses her out she does not say much except that "it is disgusting" and then curls up her nose in distaste. I figured in the absence of a man in the household and opportunity to see two adults being affectionate with each other, her world view was getting a little distorted. I felt a need to try and remedy her skewed perception.

So I had a conversation with her about how love and affection is displayed differently depending on relationship and age. A man and a woman kissing could be a beautiful thing in the right context and inappropriate - even immoral in others. J asked why a mother does not kiss her child like the man and woman did in the movie. I tell her that it was not the way maternal or filial love is expressed in the natural order of things. These are among the many boundaries that human beings have set upon themselves and we consider it morally (and sometime even religiously) offensive to have them transgressed.

And then conversation headed to the appropriate age for an intimate relationship and the importance of restraint and choosing a mate with care. How life will bring a plethora of opportunities for short-term, instant pleasure that would result in longer-term regret and suffering.

I told J she could choose to live recklessly in her youth, absolutely enjoy what the moment had to offer and regret once youth had faded. Or she may choose to curb the impulse to live like there was no tomorrow, forgo the fun that most of her peers were having in the interest of something more fulfilling and long lasting. Around this point, I started losing her attention and decided a picture is worth a thousand words.

A quick Google search yielded a set of time-line pictures of Britney Spears and Madonna. Then I showed her the picture a childhood friend had sent me of our fifth grade teacher from her recent trip to our town in India. She had scanned a class picture with the same teacher and commented "Can you believe how she hasn't changed one bit in twenty years !!".

This was an "ordinary" woman who lead a simple, uneventful life raised a couple of wonderful kids and seemed to have stopped age in its tracks. She looks just as serene and peaceful today as she did so many years ago. She must have done something right with her life. The question for J was would she rather look like our fifth grade teacher forty years out our or like the celebrity train-wrecks she had seen.

But for the popular media's celebrity obsession and determination to chronicle every second of their existense, it would have been impossible for me to so easily prove my point about devolution resulting from driving through life at high-speed and recklessly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Math Ability

Mrs. Janakiraman's favorite line in our 10th grade math class was "If I can do math so can each one of you. I was never considered good at maths and now I am a high school maths teacher" When we heard that for the first time, we did not know what to make of that statement. She offered no elaboration on the theme so we arrived at independent conclusions about it.

Maybe she meant it was a really easy subject to master and required no special talent, or perhaps being a high school math teacher was no measure of mathematical aptitude or proficiency. By far the worst interpretation was we as a class were decidedly obtuse but there was hope for us yet. She was trying to be our inspiration by being self-deprecating.

At any rate, she made us work hard, follow a well defined regimen to problem solving and managed to completely demystify math before the year was out. There was no room for imagination or creativity but it sure got the job done. Irrespective of our academic abilities we were all able to see a problem, approach the solution methodically and most often get the answer right.

That was very empowering specially to those among us who had until then been labeled a lost cause as far as success in math. It did a lot to boost their self-confidence. Reading this news article
about chimps and college students being at par in mental math makes me consider Mrs. Janakiraman's statement in entirely new light.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Relative Stranger

My friend P usually has some interesting dating story to tell when we manage to catch up every couple of months. The latest one begins at a grocery store near her house. The man ahead of her in the checkout line looked vaguely familiar. He was mid to late 30s, desi with gelled hair slicked back. Trying very hard to look youthful, hip and cool and not quite making it. There was no sign of recognition on his face when he glanced at her briefly. For a minute she thought perhaps he looked like someone else she knew but that did not seem to fit.

After he had left the store, she realized that he had contacted her a few times in through an online dating site. The pictures he had up were a good ten years younger and he was much shorter than what his profile claimed. Since she had never responded, he did not know who she was or what she looked like. She thought no more of the incident except that it was an interesting coincidence.

But unbeknownest to her, there was more to come. She was to run into the same dude at work a few weeks later. Apparently he had transfered to this office recently and was new in the area. At this point, P decided to accept one of his previous contacts and see what he had to say - "just for the kicks" as she explained her motivation. In person "he dripped attitude" and was fairly obnoxious. When he asked for a picture, she suggested that they communicate via email at first if all went well meet in person "for coffee or something". He agreed to this arrangement.

So they started exchanging emails getting off to a fast and furious start. Sometimes, she would run into him in the hallway minutes after having received a mail from him. This thing was becoming more and more thrilling and P is a thrill-junkie. She got her biggest high on the day when they were both in the same meeting, exchanging brief emails to work out the logistics of their in-person meeting.

He was telling her how his calendar was full and he would have to go out of town for a business trip and be back only late Saturday. He could do brunch Sunday morning but she should be prepared to see him in his jogging gear. She had a hard time controlling the laughter rumbling inside her. He had a cube-bound job, no meetings on his calendar from Wednesday to Friday, business trips did not even exist his line of work. Cog in the wheel dude with delusions of grandeur she thought to herself.

The best part of the whole thing she told me excitedly was that she was able to watch his facial expressions as he spun his yarns.
Needless to say, the meeting "for coffee or something" never happened and she stopped responding to his mails. The little game was over and no one was really hurt. P had had her fill of voyeuristic pleasure. Many stories that start online, don't end quite as quietly or harmlessly. A man and his wife end up chatting with each other, online finding true love and also discovering that they have both been cheating. This leads to divorce. A mother impersonates her teen-aged daughter and causes one online suitor to actually murder another. I tell P that she must be careful and not take thrills too far.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Whimsical Jewelry

Love the idea of Barmecide fine jewelry. The standard disclaimer might be recipient must have a sense of humor to appreciate this jewelry. For the she-geek or even wannabe there are HTML tag earrings. The old world meets new in this lovely fusion of coconut seeds with silver. There are words of wisdom for those who are fall prey to temptation of such lovely, whimsical jewelry but never end up wearing much of their coveted collection.

The key considerations are color, size and if the piece is a fit for your lifestyle. To that I would age and emotional state as well. Comes a point in the life every woman when those precious boxes of costume jewelry must be given away to daughters, nieces and younger girlfriends - that's the only way the world will get to see them again, perhaps appreciate her good taste.

Sometimes when you see a pair of your favorite earrings from twenty years ago, on another woman, it looks hopelessly out of place and context. In time, they may grow on her, become part of her life, acquire a context just as meaningful as your own. When that happens, you know your have gifted right.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rocking Horse Reference

When he had asked her if she had read The Rocking-Horse Winner, she had said "Yes, it was a nice story". She had read it at least fifteen years ago and did not remember much except the ambiance being dark and intense. He said "It is one my favorite stories. I saw myself in Paul the very first time. I still can."

Like her, he had read the story over a decade ago. Unlike her, he had not read
The Plumed Serpent or Lady Chatterley's Lover. They had been married a month at the time. She was eager to find out where their love for literature intersected, if they had read the same books at the same time growing up. Being the incurable romantic she was, she wanted to see where the parallel time-lines of their lives had met before they had met each other. Was it possible that he had read Jude The Obscure and Metamorphosis and felt depressed for days ? Had it been right before the monsoons began and the skies had been overcast with dark clouds to mirror her mood ?

What he did not say, but might have wanted is for her to read The Rocking-Horse Winner again and see if she could get into the skin of Paul's character and if she would ask him "Were you never able to love your mother ?" He wanted to see if she could be a receptacle of his pain because he was hurting from the need to pour it out. Instead, the discussion had wandered off in other directions. They talked about his favorite fairytale, the happy places of his childhood. He painted for her the picture she wanted to see - an untroubled childhood, a perfect family, a loving mother, a strict but kind father.

A small kernel of hate started to form at the core of him. He was married to a selfish woman. A woman who had a nearly perfect life, a woman who would never understand Paul or his mother because there was absolutely nothing about their lives that she could even remotely relate to. The entitled bitch, he said to himself. She can afford to read and appreciate literature without being dragged down by a character, without having their words haunt her for years. Reading is no different for her than visiting an art gallery.

He did not tell her that he had read The Rocking-Horse Winner over and over again, it was a uncontrollable urge to return to it like Paul on the Rocking Horse. Each time the words exploded in his head, he saw his own childhood, his mother and his dysfunctional family in them. That story became his obsession. Today he feared to read it just like a recovering alcoholic might cringe at the idea of drink. He did not trust himself to be able to stop.

To have his wife say that she remembered the brooding ambiance of the story - the details had long since faded away was no less than a travesty of their wedding vows. Much later she would tell him "I realize that you do not have any capacity to love anyone. I don't know if you even love yourself. No one ever loved you so have no conception of what love is. But in your own grotesquely twisted way you do love me. I don't think you can "love" anymore more than you love me." He found himself agreeing with her assessment. She appreciated his honesty.

He wondered if she would want to find out more, ask the question "Why ?" perhaps. Maybe there was hope yet. That was not how she saw where their relationship stood. She had already asked the questions and received no answers. They had pretended for as long as she could tolerate that all was well with him and them. She had no interest in cryptic clues, in fact it had never crossed her mind that there may be a gold mine of them in the many literary references.

In her mind, she had gone the distance to meet him, gone much more than half way but he had never been there. Years later, after having parted ways in anger, resentment and despair, she did read The Rocking-Horse Winner again. This time she understood the man whose life had crossed hers briefly. She felt sorry for him, if they had still been friends she may have held him and let him cry until his heart broke and healed again. For old time's sake and for the misplaced faith they once had in each other, she wished that he may find the woman who would understand him and Paul instinctively. She felt glad that she had given a second chance because she would have never been that woman.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Seasons And Smells

The smell of Nivea body lotion and fall came to be associated for me after coming to America. It was the only thing that eased the severe dryness of my skin in this season. Other seasons had their own signature smells and most connections seemed to have happened unconsciously in my childhood. Like the smell of Kiku and starched organdy saris spells summer. It is the perfume my mother wore during the day. Cold winter nights smell of freshly ironed zari borders on silk saris mingled with Tosca.

My own smell of summer is lavender - it is also my smell of peace and happiness. Gardenia and jasmine are winter, starry nights and a gentle breeze that makes you tug your shawl closer around yourself. Burning tobacco is that of the man in charge - a father, uncles and grandfathers all of who were smokers in my family. It is a reminder of their presence and protection. Some events have smells too - like the end of a relationship smells of Bvlgari Blue. It is a beautifully sensual smell but I feel intensely repulsed by it.

Ghee, camphor and cardamom together can transport me to a puja in a temple. A friend who has always been there for me and J uses a certain blend of essential oils that is very distinctly her. That smell is of steadfastness, affection and friendship. Mustela Baby Shampoo is that of J after a shower from the time she was born. I love the smell so much that I have never used anything else on her to this day. She may grow up and leave Mustela behind among other childhood memorabilia but my own memories of her will always stay twined with that smell.

There are smells I long to remember and there are those I wish to forget forever.

Friday, December 14, 2007

No Baby Step

Taking baby steps was never J's thing - not even when she was a baby. So she went straight to standing up and walking soon after she learned to sit, the crawling phase just never happened. Needless to say, even before she could balance herself on her feet she tried to dash instead of walk. It was funny to see her grow frustrated with herself each time she stumbled.

She'd get really mad at anyone who laughed at her which made us want to laugh even more. Yet getting her to take one step at a time was an exercise in futility. J had no patience for any of that, she had to do things her way. Not a lot has changed since then. She's not a baby anymore and she does not believe in taking baby steps any more than she did at six months old.

Even before she had completed reading her second Dr. Seuss book, J was bent on reading a chapter book like the big kids did. I tried to tell her why that may not be a good idea but The Green Eggs and Ham was just not cutting it. J informed me that it was not a "real" chapter book. The first "real" chapter book she picked to read was
Caitlin's Holiday. J had just started in first grade at the time and struggled with the big words and there were plenty of them. The rule about no more than five new words per page to determine reading level was clearly not being applied but she couldn't care less.

At the end of chapter one, she was barely able to comprehend what she had read till then. But there would be returning to junior readers to develop her reading skills. So we persevered with Caitlin and her doll Holiday to the bitter end. Every minute, J would ask me to help her with yet another big word. By the time we were done, J had figured the story line out, she had her most and least favorite character and definitely ready for the next book which was
Lucky In Left Field.

Compared to the first one, this was a breeze. She had just managed to stand steady on her feet and true to form she was ready to run now. Her third book is
The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes - Reach for the Stars. All the gains from the first two books were wiped away swiftly right on page one. This is a book several years older than her. She set to work interrupting her reading with innumerable "What does this say ?"

At page 86 where she is right now reading to me, J has finally found her groove. She is following the story line, getting the humor and relating to the characters a little bit. Back before J had started to read I would often tell her that not knowing to read is like being a bird in a cage, reading at your own grade level like a bird in an zoo but reading well above grade level is like a free bird flying free in the endless sky. The intent was to get her excited about reading. I would tell her about how reading and comprehending would bring everything there was to know in the world within reach and how powerful she would feel. I wonder now if that was the right message to reinforce with a kid like J.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

East Is West

The last few days, I have been tuning into to NPR's series Yellow River: A Journey Through China on the commute back home. In one episode, Rob Gifford talks about a group of young people living together in a house and sharing their lives in ways reminiscent of the "Friends" gang. He talks about how little separates the youth of boom town China from their peers in the west.

I was also recently introduced an Internet TV show titled
Sexy Beijing. The producer describes it as "A show which follows the ups-and-downs of Sufei, a 30-something singleton looking for love in China. Along the way, we cover topics like feminism, hip-hop, migrant workers, and Chinese romance. One thing that's unique about our show is that it appeals to both Chinese and Western audiences. We also do the show in Mandarin and it's a big hit on Chinese video-sharing site"

The blog post titled Money, Love and Numerology draws parallels between east and west just as Rob Gifford does. The blogger reports :

According to the China Daily, a "growing number of the country's young adults" consider money to be a determining factor when looking for a partner.

"Nearly half the 8,932 respondents said that money and other financial packages are the most important preconditions for love."

A poor sap named Lu Yun tells the paper that his girlfriend recently dumped him over housing. "She made it very clear: An apartment works. No apartment, no-go," he told the paper. The guy is only 28 years old!

Later in the post, he writes:

Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw was hung up on an emotionally unavailable real estate mogul, not a romantic but underemployed security guard from the Bronx who still lived with his mom.

But still, home ownership as a pre-condition for love at the age of 28 would surely rule out about 99% of young singles in New York or San Francisco. Little wonder many young Chinese complain that the pressures of life are mounting in contemporary Chinese society.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Shoe Lust

I fit comfortably into the stereotype of women never having too many shoes or bags though I own very few of both. It is more a state of mind thing so direct ownership does not really count. When shoe or bag craving sets in I head over to a couple of shoe and bag blogs to get my fix. Recently, a shoe blogger sought out my blog - Air Jordans. Seems like the perfect antidote for sneaker lust. I figure the karma balances out now.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hard As Nails

It is quite evident from watching HBO's Hard As Nails that Justin Fatica is a man with a mission, a larger than life sense of purpose and evangelizing style that some would find impossible to relate to. To the outsider watching the interactions between Fatica and his constituents (primarily troubled teenagers), he can easily come across as a bully bent on imposing his world view upon those who lack the will, courage or confidence to voice their own.

The fact that they lack one or more of those traits critical to becoming a well adjusted person, is the reason their teen insecurities take an extreme turn - making them the kind of kid Fatica is out to rescue. They are drowned and possibly drained out by the sheer intensity of their minister's rhetoric - there is little if any room for contemplation and inward growth in how the religious message is delivered. The goal of the ministry is laudable but the means are somewhat suspect.

Surely, there are better ways to bring about a sense of spiritual centeredness among disturbed youth without browbeating them into submission - even it is to their religious faith. Fatica would likely not garner much support from the strong-willed, free spirited teens who refuse to be told what is wrong with them. They are not any less troubled than those who would submit themselves to Fatica's preaching only that his style would render his message inaccessible to them.

His own family appears to have an uneasy relationship with his claim to fame and that makes the viewer wonder if Justin Fatica is just an overage teen working through issues of parental approval and has taken the messianic turn in the process.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Rendered Wordless

I was right behind this snazzy little silver Mercedes convertible waiting for the signal to turn green, when its driver apparently decided he had waited about enough, jumped the red light and sped away. I guess everyone at the intersection was just as astounded as I was because no one registered any protest by way of honking. As I went on my way, I wondered if there was a word to describe the sense of entitlement drivers of certain kinds of cars feel when they share the road with plebians driving ultra-boring, sensibly priced Japanese autos and the like.

If there was such a word, it would doubtless go in tandem with the utter stupefication experienced by the said plebians when confronted by overt displays of such entitlement. Maybe someone has sent the Washington Post an unsolicited Mensa Invitational entry with words that express just those sentiments. There are some pretty cool words out there :

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

3. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

4. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

5. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of having sex with a stranger.

6. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

7. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

8. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

9. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It's when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, and then the Earth explodes, and it's a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Inverted Pyramid

The future of management as viewed by its practitioners across the industry is going to be very different from what we going on today. One commentator has succinctly summarized what ails organizations today :

A predominant feature of most organizations today is the top-down approach. Strategy is formulated at the top and is expected to be executed at lower levels of the pyramid. The underlying assumption is that wisdom, new ideas and a roadmap for the future are all the exclusive domain of the C-Suite.

Twenty years from now, I see the emergence of the inverted pyramid. Major decisions would be made at the operational level and driven up for ratification to the top. Such inclusiveness is inevitable given the ubiquitous nature of knowledge, the fact that radically new ideas can emanate from anywhere, and an adaptive roadmap is more likely to be generated by those who have a direct interface with key stakeholders - customers and suppliers. The assumption here is that with wealth being distributed more and more, the bottom of the present pyramid may have as much of a financial stake in the organization as the top.

All other constructs - the web structure, the CEO being the first among equals, empowerment, transparency, accountability et al follow from the inverted pyramid.

If the folks in the trenches or others like them are the consumers of the product or service in the organization's business domain, they can very well be the voice of customer that drives a lot of strategizing in the ivory towers. Yet, very rarely do they get to weigh in on usability, design, aesthetics, user experience, which competitors are doing a better job or what it would take to earn their loyalty and business.

When it comes to the implementation of strategy, without the input of the actual performers, management always risks over-promising and under-delivering. What is viewed a "minor implementation detail" in the grand scheme of things, can end up being the ugly, hydra-headed show-stopper.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Cheapest Body

Being in a small town where there is only one game and a half in town for IT consulting work, I can attest to a lot of the trends and observations that this author and his readers talk about.

In my neck of the woods, everyone and their grandma with a smattering of IT-speak has set up shop as a staff augmentation agency. Whenever the game and half in town have a requisition to fill, the battle to fill it gets fierce and bloody. Within minutes, the job posting is up on all the major job boards and there is one by each of these agencies.

From the nationwide chains to the local Mom and Pop shops everyone is in the fray trying to place a body. Being that all shops are not equally rated by the clients, the smaller ones have to piggy back on the preferred vendors to get their foot in the door and submit their candidate. The key to landing a job successfully is to quote the lowest bill rate possible.

You may have twenty five years of experience but do not expect to make any more than the recent college grad scouting the market for her first gig. It is a level playing field as far as hourly rates and there is close to no correlation between experience and pay. What skills and value you bring to the table matter little to hiring managers whose most consuming concern is their budget.

They would much rather hire someone young and inept who will flounder and often miserably fail if they cost a lot less than a seasoned professional who can deliver a high quality product and hit the ground running.

Quality is most definitely not king in the IT industry. The older person usually has more responsibilities and often cannot afford to work for as cheap as the young kid fresh. They get priced out just by local competition and then there is offshore to contend with. They have a choice between being underemployed, underpaid and unappreciated in the IT industry or finding a new career.

I would tend to concur with the author that the IT industry is headed south and has little to offer those who have spent the best years of their life acquiring the skills and competencies that just cannot be replicated without doing time in the trenches and learning things the hard way. I always tell my six year old she must never get into IT. Anything but IT is my mantra for her.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Likely To Stray

There are signs of male infidelity and being a mirror hog is apparently one of them. The one that I find most intriguing is :

Cheating Sign #1: He Doesn't Pay His Bills On Time

Some research shows that unreliability and carelessness is part of a personality trait called "low consciousness," which is a marker for infidelity. Makes sense. A guy who's careless about his own responsibilities is going to be just as careless about his relationships.

The carelessness about responsibility argument could be extended to other areas in life and likewise point to potential for unfaithfulness. A couple that come to mind are being habitually late and being cavalier about honoring any kind of commitment. Logically, the same traits in women could make them just as likely to unfaithful.

I wonder if there would be a strong correlation between bill pay behavior and the "financial clues" that can lead to trapping a cheater this article talks about. Imagine a spouse setting up and email alert to be notified of when all the signs point to a straying partner.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

No Smile

I awaited my turn by the community microwave at work. A slightly disgruntled looking desi gent was ahead of me with his multi course meal. The containers were of assorted sizes and of decidedly desi provenance. Once heated, the food smelt perfectly divine. The gent took a seat across from the TV and set out the several containers in front of him.

As he started to open the lids, I could not help noticing the plump parathas browned just right accompanied by two curries - one wet and the other dry. Each course came in its own container. There were condiments too in small plastic containers that looked like old Gerber Lil Meal boxes. There was raita in one and pickles in the other.

I waited for my lackluster meal to heat up and marveled at the feast the unfolded before my eyes. I figured the man must have a passion for cooking and eating well or a wife at home who made such lunch hour bounties possible. My money would be on the later. There was a feminine touch about the packaging and presentation of all the food.

Yet, there was not the smallest trace of happiness on his face. Lunch cooked and served like that would have made an average working person's day. He must have caught me eying his meal and looked up at me ever so briefly just as I was returning to my desk. There was not the briefest hint of a smile on his face.

I wondered for a minute, what it would take for this saturnine desi to laugh heartily. It is not the first time that I have noticed how glum my brethren look even when they have a lot going for them. As with everything else, desis must have ultra high standards for being cheerful and not much makes the grade. Clearly it takes a lot more than a five course, home-cooked lunch.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Domestic Drudge

This news story about ditched househusbands feels uneven because the views of the women concerned are not presented. The "wife" in the family is depicted as the underdog who does better than best for the home and the kids and in return for all that is dumped by an unappreciative spouse. Replace househusband by wife and you have the typical senior male exec with a mid-life crisis, leaving his wife of twenty years for his hot young secretary. Both accounts are cliched - the real story is probably a lot more nuanced than that.

When either of the couple turns too "homely" and has their existence revolving around domestic chores, kids play dates and the like they become less than interesting to their partner who has a life outside home. None of the househusbands in the story utilized the gift of time they were given in their decision to stay home, to pursue a hobby or non-career goal.
Instead they seemed to focus on becoming the best domestic drudge they could possibly be. The results are predictable. When your pride and joy is being able to clean and rinse dishes until they shine like new, comment and critique on that task is only to be expected. To me, this story has it all wrong.

This is not about men being dumped because they were humane and sensitive enough to put the needs of their family and children ahead of their own. It is more about what happens to a marriage if one partner has a opportunity of many interesting interactions and an individual gaol (which could be a career growth) while the other is happy to be a the old-fashioned "wife" cooking, cleaning, scrubbing and raising the kids.

While none of that is dispensable in the context of being married with kids, the modern day marriage expects both partners do much more than just fulfill the traditional bread-winner and domestic drudge roles to remain viable for each other.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Paradox Of Plenty

Nice essay on the paradox of plenty in the context of nations blessed with enormous amounts of natural resources and how they remain in the throes of crippling poverty even as countries with scarce natural wealth flourish. The essay defines the "natural resource curse" thusly :

This phrase refers to the tendency of countries whose wealth is based on gold, oil or other valuable resources to ossify into unproductive and uncreative economies, with low levels of entrepreneurship, and industrial and commercial stagnation. This paradoxical phenomenon has many economic explanations, mostly related to currency valuations, investment levels and income distributions.

What applies for nations, cultures and entire geographic regions seems to translate to the individual level too. You often find early childhood promise (bordering on the prodigious even) dwindle to nothingness by adulthood. These children are endowed with an abundance of gifts and talents from birth which "ossify" over time for want direction (complacent parents expecting them to cruise through school and life because of their inherent genius) or by falling behind in the manner of the hare as the average tortoise plods along. This is a paradox of plenty too.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Despite being able to lounge in PJs all day and finish up a load of laundry while on a conference call, it is probably true that telecommuting will not be the choice of the masses anytime soon. Anyone with a micro-managing, control freak of a boss will attest to that. Then there are those who are passionate about moving to the corner office, getting face time with and thereby recognition from powers that be - their year end reviews and bonuses depend on those opportunities.

Having telecommuted a few times in the past, my personal experience has been mixed. The work day gets off to a relaxed start, I can actually sit down and have breakfast and obviously save myself gas money and the commute. But the days always end up being much longer. As a telecommuter, it feels as if you are presumed to be a slacker unless there is evidence to the contrary.

It is not possible to walk away from the computer and have the messaging service show you as idle. At the workplace it would probably mean a bathroom break but with a telecommuter your co-workers will wonder aloud if you are out shopping or running errands while "pretending" to be at work. If your manager has trust issues, this does not bode well for you.

You log in early and log out late to mitigate the risk of having your absence noticed by those who are at work and therefore on an unstated moral high-ground. Unless the organization actively encourages telecommuting and has senior management leading by example, it is hard for the rest of the workforce to make it a way of work for the majority of the time. Telecommuting seems to be most effective as an option people can exercise occasionally.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Old Song

I have heard this song more times than I can remember since childhood but for the first time this evening, it made me cry. Rabindra Sangeet I have been told is more about being able to emote to the lyrics and the tune than sophisticated technique. Being that I had only conversational knowledge of Bengali for the longest time, the pathos or the romance of the lyrics were lost on me.

There is something deeply melancholy about this tune. Yet I had never thought of it as anything but a beautiful song of love before. Today it made me ache for a lost time of my life, for that last time when it had not taken an effort to look forward to every new day with happiness and hope, when there were only endless dreams without the need for grappling with reality itself.

It is amazing how the same song at different times can resonate with feelings of love, longing, loss and pain. I must have not known pain as intimately as I do now and in that I had missed out a significant part of what this song must try to convey at least in a rendition like this one.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bespoke Shoes

I have long given up on trying to find shoes that look nice and feel comfortable at the same time. The only time the combination has worked is when I have bought "broken-in" designer shoes from a thrift store - a pair that has been worn enough to make it stop hurting the foot of the wearer but has not acquired the old, worn-out look yet.

I am curious about technology that will help me design a stylish pair of shoes that takes the contours of my feet into account. This is a lot like the Bodymetrics jeans idea - some day, they might be able to hook up those scanning pods to web-cams so the lazy online shopper could have a pair of bespoke jeans or shoes made and mailed to them without having to step out of their home. The idea of thrift store couture is interesting too because random mash-ups from discard bins cannot be mass produced - the outfits will be bespoke in a way. Too bad the concept can't be extended to shoes - at least not very easily.