Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ten Years

Today marks the tenth year since I started this blog. The fact that I have been able to keep it on life support for the last several years and not totally killed it feels good. The fact that it even exists gave me motivation to return and write again. Readers have been kind enough to stay with me through the years that I was mostly absent and had nothing to say. Sometimes I would get an email of support or encouragement. For all of that I am grateful. I don't have a plan anymore and that is very liberating.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On Making

I stopped "making" anything tangible in my job many years ago. Since about the same time, I have experienced emptiness about what I do for a living and been troubled about purpose. As I grow older. the question of legacy comes to mind. There is a need to do something meaningful even if on a very small scale. When I get together with friends my age and older, we find that we have similar concerns and something common in how we cope with our inadequacies. A lot us "make" things outside work. In a token way, it gives us a sense of purpose.  Reading this Atlantic article about being a maker brings interesting insight to the culture of making and the value attributed to it

A quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem says: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” Maker culture, with its goal to get everyone access to the traditionally male domain of making, has focused on the first. But its success means that it further devalues the traditionally female domain of caregiving, by continuing to enforce the idea that only making things is valuable.

I don't associate the idea of making with the male domain. Making is about creating something that brings happiness or fulfills need for purpose. That is a gender neutral instinct.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Eating Virtually

Love the idea of being able to indulge in bad food (or at least imagine that you are) while eating what's good and right for you. Very promising for those who struggle with food - eating to too much or not at all. What would also be nice is the ability to serve memories of food - something you at many years ago while traveling to a place you had not visited before or since. And being able to share another persons's experience of food that they love. Imagine being able to substitute the menu of your favorite restaurant while eating a very boring dinner at home. So many interesting possibilities.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ugly Mirror

Interesting story about mirrors getting more than a little help from technology and completely ruining the object of our primal fascination. Sad to think that mirrors will get smart to a point where we can no longer see ourselves as we are, learn to live with and love our flaws. Instead, it would show us who we have the "theoretical" potential to become and goad us into improving ourselves. 

That is actually a little worse than amplifying our flaws. We may find a way to work with that over time - but the titillation of what we may have been if we made the right investments is a dangerous dream to chase after.

Clearly the airbrushed imagery we are subject to constantly are not conveying the message clearly enough. Maybe we are not able to personalize and internalize what we see in them. Maybe we separate "us" from "them" and go about the business of our lives. Someone saw the need to remedy that problem by bringing the truth much closer home.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fifty Times

Reading these lines from Seth's Godin's post produced a rather visceral reaction in me today. 

[I say 'choose' because anyone who has worked with programmers understands that the great ones are worth far more than the average ones. Sometimes 50 times as much. That's because great programmers are able to architect systems that are effective, that scale, and that do things that other programmers can't imagine until after they're done.]

What he says about great programmers I have been saying to the powers that be in my organization for a long time now. Not that anyone disagrees in principle but it is still a huge leap in faith when you decide to replace fifty with one. You almost make this person into a God. They just have too much power and control. They operate at a level that is inaccessible and incomprehensible to most people. 

Maybe those are the reasons why there is irrational resistance to hiring them. The average programmer is a mortal. They are practicing a trade and may be skilled at best. They are not savants. I have worked with a few 10x programmers in the course of my career. Have not been in places where it would be possible to run into the 50x ones but I do believe they exist. In the meanwhile we struggle with a team fifty times the size it needs to be and still not see light at the end of the tunnel.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sheep Not Snowflakes

This Wired story makes for very interesting reading. It indirectly explains why it is so hard to shop for clothes. Even with the seemingly endless variety there is overwhelming monotony - season after season, store after store. Once you have stocked up on the wardrobe staples, the rest gets much harder if your goal is to find clothes that express your individuality. 

There is many ways to join the sheep herd but nearly none to be a snowflake. Some of my friends shop for clothes at consignment stores because it easier to come by something unique there. Then there are those like Mrs L, who I knew many years ago, who have their all their clothes tailored in Hong Kong - completely bespoke and very much a snowflake.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thrift Nostalgia

Browsing through the discards and rejects of other people's lives often leads to serendipitous finds for me. I don't go to yard sales as much I as once used to but there are thrift stores I check out from time to time. Recently we found a book of sheet music for piano for a dollar. These are hits from the 70s with lot of nostalgic value for me some of which has been passed on to J. She has either heard or heard of most of the songs in the book and was excited to try and play them. 

Lately, piano has become a bit of a struggle for her. A demanding teacher who expects her to practice an hour each day - time she simply does not have. The fun has started to ebb away as J works on correcting her flaws week after week. The book brought about a sudden change. She loves to play tunes she is familiar with and sing along. She is not so worried about being good enough for Ms T - this is her music to have fun with. It makes the work that is assigned much easier to endure. She often loses track of time as she plays - something I have waited a long time to see happen.

This would be the best dollar I have ever spent.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Humanized Machines

A fridge door that can serve up hot coffee or soup controlled by wi-fi can look like an excellent idea when you are down with a bad cold, feeling miserable but not really sick enough to get too much attention. You just stay in, rest up and let it pass. In that state,even heating a meal is a pain. 

So ideally, you pick out what kind of soup you want, have the app let you know its ready so you can drag yourself with great difficulty to get it. But connecting this to a robot butler to deliver it bedside would make for a much sweeter deal.

Obviously there are ways to improve and personalize the experience even more. There could come a point where between the fridge, phone and the robot butler your care is better managed than any human in your life who would need to juggle several things to create the time for you. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Change In Likes

This article on how we grow to like foods we once hated is an interesting read. Have seen that happen to me and others I grew up with. The unthinkable reversals have happened. I used to attribute it to something strange that goes on with our taste-buds as we age - makes us like things as older adults that we hated as kids. 

It made sense when J says "I bet you would like it because I hate it. Adults seems to love the very things kids hate and the other way around". It seems to work that way quite often down to specific types of Halloween candy that J will have in her reject pile. Quite often I may find something that works for me. Similarly, J is not interested in the kind of chocolate I like. As she grows older, we seem to find more things in common when it comes to food. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Versatile Women

In a recent conversation with J, I learned some cultural norms of middle school. Girls are either taken seriously or not by their peers (male and female) based on how they present themselves. If she looks like she spends most weekends at the mall shopping cute outfits and an hour in front of the mirror each morning she is not taken seriously. Those are the signs of a bimbo. To that end, when invited to a party a serious girl can't stray too far from her native image. 

I challenged this assumption strongly and asked J why a girl who wants to be taken seriously cannot be versatile. There is a time and place to project a geek image and one in which to demonstrate social adeptness. Being in your comfort zone and around people just like you is easy for anyone - it takes no effort and as such there are no rewards. It is much harder to get comfortable outside that familiar ecosystem. 

When I was growing up in India, I recall "Satarupa" (one having a  hundred beautiful forms) women were held in high esteem. I have been lucky to know a few. Mrs S was in her fifties when I was in middle school. She had degrees from Princeton and Yale. Had traveled the wold, taught in universities, been in senior executive roles outside academia and was the mother of three grown up kids. She was invited to our school to talk to girls about career, work life balance and being a woman in a man's world. 

There was no minimizing or glossing over the challenges she had faced but she was positive about her experiences. You could tell she did not hate men in any way. She talked about forging partnerships with them and not being adversarial - learning to stand your ground but not losing your femininity in the process. She showed up in a sari like any other woman her age that we knew. 

Being girls we noticed her excellent taste and the light touch with the make-up and jewelry. She looked wonderful for her age and radiated confidence. She delivered a speech that rivals anything I have heard to this day. She shared her passion for baking and how she took lessons from pastry chefs in different countries where she had lived and worked. The importance of family rituals, celebrating festivals came up. She talked about how they did things in her home - there was nothing there we could not relate to. Our stay at home mothers did exactly what she did. 

Then there were some pictures of her over the years, as a student, newly wed, young mother, milestones in her career and so on that she shared. Old grainy images we saw through a projector that transformed our thinking about what it means to be a woman. Mrs S was indeed "Satarupa" and if her life thus far was any indication it had served her exceptionally well. It is a meeting I valued then and treasure to this day. There was no girl in that auditorium that did not want to be like Mrs S - in essence even if we could not replicate her life.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Data Diet

Love the idea of putting organizations on a "Data Diet". Hoarding all data in sight just in case there is some buried nugget of intelligence waiting to be tapped into is no different than being a pack rat at home and not letting go of useless junk just in case. '

The common rule for de-cluttering our living spaces can easily be transferred to organizations being data pack rats. If no one missed a certain something in the attic, garage or basement for a year or more then it is time to review its need to exist. Most often the item in question will be revealed to be an impulse buy whose time has come and gone or just plain old junk that need to be trashed. Likewise will cold or dead data.

The promise of hidden treasure in a data dumpster is just that - a promise. Very rarely does it get fulfilled. But everyone is out there hoarding everything they can just so they don't miss out if and when technology becomes smart enough to do something fantastic with it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Job Schedule

I got some good parenting advice from a friend recently. Being that J is thirteen, I am trying to get her ready to live alone when she goes to college. Doing laundry is one of the tasks on the list. The mother in question told me that my strategy was going to fail big and everyone would come out of the experience frustrated. I had worked out with J that she would do her laundry on Friday evening after she came back from school. H told me that was a set up for failure. You cannot give the kid a new job and a schedule to follow along with it. 

They need to be eased into the job first and once they get a hang of it, try to frame a schedule. Cannot jump the gun and expect results. Her son who is high school now, has taken all of three years to learn the job and is yet to get on a schedule. Clearly, it has nothing to do with academic ability. The kid is an all A student in a highly competitive school with near perfect SAT scores. According to H, they are not wired at this age to do chores in an organized way. We need to let these things slide as long as they do what they are really required to do. Her son being case in point. 

As of this weekend, J has washed and dried her clothes with minimal supervision. We have accomplished step one - teaching her the chore. Following H's advice, I will be reminding her to repeat this activity once a week and learning not to get impatient when I am ignored.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Compressed Memories

Can so relate to this article on the curse of compressing reality. After a major event passes in life, the details of the hours and the days that were part of it are compressed into smaller packages to be archived. The highs and the lows get adjusted toward the middle so that the big event is just another random thing that happened to you. A few years go by and you are left grasping at washed out images, their sequence (and meaning) long destroyed. 

Some days I am just grateful for the minutes that I remember in full color detail. What the weather was like that day, the smell of the air, the feeling of well being  and then the event itself. Not all of it but the moments that stood out and stayed etched in memory

Friday, January 16, 2015

Into The Woods

J was all excited when I picked her up at the movie theater after the show last weekend. She and a few of her friends had just watched Into The Woods. As I usually do, I asked her to tell me about the movie in the car and she launched into a plot summary with great enthusiasm. Now, it takes us about fifteen minutes to drive from said theater to home. I was parking in the driveway before the summary was done. 

Several times during the narrative I had to struggle to stay awake. Fractured fairy-tale cocktail turned into a movie sounded like a terrible idea. It would ,make for a boring ramble and contrived connections. But the kids really loved it and I was not sure what the draw was. Just the length of the plot summary was enough to keep me from watching this thing.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tweeting Characters

My hairdresser was complaining about how there is too much electronics in the toys for her six month old. She has to look harder for old fashioned things that don't have any. She hates things that have an app for it. It was an interesting perspective from someone who is only twenty three. But again she was home-schooled and is probably not representative of the general population. Anyway, people like her may not appreciate the ability to tweet and text with characters of a book. It takes even more away from the real book experience, the ability to shut out the world and escape into a fictional land.

This is a whole new genre of literature waiting to be created crowdsource style. We can hook up Captain Ahab with a twitter handle and let him air his views of the world to the readership and respond to their questions along the way. He could be running direct communications with readers via text as well. In so doing, we have created content that can (with some editing) be shipped as the Didactics of Captain Ahab. A whole another book that comes out of the belly of Moby Dick.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Poetic Business

Loved the poetic language HBR uses to describe the betrayal perpetrated by Yahoo on its Flickr users. The travesty of customer trust is described thusly :

What Yahoo is doing just isn’t what we had in mind when we put our photos under the CC-BY license. We were trying to contribute to our culture in some small way. We were participating in the gift economy. We were sharing.

Now Yahoo has inserted itself into our enchanted triangle. The connections among the vertices of that triangle had been characterized by sharing and goodwill. But Yahoo has turned our photos − our gifts − into commodities and reduced them to their cash value.

Was trying to imagine using language such as the above in work communication. Here is one way I can think of using it in my local context "Now Org X has inserted itself into our enchanted triangle. The connection among the vertices of that triangle had been characterized by collaboration and agility. But Org X has turned our creative energy - our ideas - into tasks and reduced them to their billable hour value" 

Needless to say whoever wrote such a mail would get some serious attention from the powers that be. They could not cite inspiration from HBR to explain their poetic excesses away.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Used Bookstore

E took me to an used bookstore  knowing its one of my favorite places to visit. It is something we have in common. Our tastes are very different so we rarely recommend books to each other. I do like to check out her bookshelves when I am visiting. A lot of interesting material even if their appeal to me is limited. This time I found a 1928 edition on eastern religions that was a good read. 

E likes that Netflix understands who she is and would never recommend that she watch The Wolf of Wall Street. She is almost afraid to try something that does not come with their stamp of approval for her. What they don't recommend is a great sign of their understanding of her preferences and E is very impressed to say the least. Anything I had to say about letting a corporation control and manage her media intake fell on deaf years. She just loves the convenience too much. At the end of a busy day Netflix is the concierge service telling her what may be good movies for her to watch and she follows their guidance faithfully. She is the ideal customer for the service and its learning algorithms. 

On the other hand, E is holding out against online and mobile banking - she needs to go to a physical branch and that's the only way she will do it. I don't know if the behavior is representative of her demographic but it does feel rather anomalous. I was pleasantly surprised to see her using the phone as her GPS but still not quite clear on what type of digital media consumer she is. Would not be caught dead on Facebook, loves Netflix, still balances her check book by hand and heavily depends on Yelp and TripAdvisor to plan her travels. Pondering her digital persona was an interesting exercise with no outcomes.

The used bookstore has become a much more chaotic experience in comparison to what she has going on with Netflix. The one we visited was pretty disappointing all around and a telling sign of the times. The books they categorized as "classics" made us both cringe in horror - the one time E and I agreed on books. The tastes of the reading population is reflected in a used book store. It is clear that people are  generally sticking with best sellers and the top ten charts. Not many are seeking quirkiness and oddball writers, one hit wonders and out of print books. There are not many personal libraries left either to receive book donations from. There is always the library book sale to pick up a popular paperback on the cheap. The used bookstore was supposed to give you access to worlds in reading you did not even know existed. 

My experience reminded me of Charles Simic's excellent article on the demise of used bookstores.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Striking Balance

Only J can tell if she considers me a "pushy parent" but she recently told me that her best friend knows that I don't sugar coat my feedback. It can be direct and "mean". As an example J cited the following difference in parental approach : For homework the kids had been assigned an essay on a very boring topic. When J showed me her first draft I said this is D quality material at best and needs a complete makeover to be remotely acceptable. I asked her to be efficient with her time and wrap it up quick - not let work expand to fill all the time there was. I did point out to the areas of improvement but only in the end. The best friend's dad on the other had her delete a very badly written paragraph saying that was more suitable for a creative writing assignment. He went on to add that she was off to a good start and with some work could get a lot better. 

Per this Scientific American article, me being pushy (if that were indeed the case ) could hurt J in the long run. Over the years, I have found that the school does a great job of finessing feedback to kids and being politically correct. The only place she hears direct (and possibly harsh) feedback is from me. I figure it will build her tolerance for people in the real world who will not be too concerned about sparing her feelings. I can be generous with praise when it is deserved so she does get positive affirmation too. I have not seen my style  hurt her self-esteem so far. I take comfort knowing that comes a point in a girl's life when what mom says is not terribly important. They are their own person and asserting their place in the world with or without mom's approval. J is getting there. If my input is not interesting it just gets tuned out. I hope between my efforts to give her a dose of reality and her ability to tune out as required , we are able to strike some balance.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Alternate Gospel

I have a budding atheist in my home. J is on the fence about God at this time but likes what little she knows about Buddhism. She would much rather there were a scientific way to explain God away. That would just make things easier for her and life would be all in good order. I prefer not to bias her one way or the other but encourage her to learn about all religions and see what makes sense for her. I tell her maybe there is a way to create something personalized that meets her needs and the content could come from various sources. No one religion may be right for her but ideas from several could be.

In a time where information comes packaged, small and easy to consume TED Talk style, getting her interested in any serious reading of religious texts is an uphill battle. I choose mine wisely - there are many more urgent ones I need to fight and win with her. The metaphysical development of J has sadly got to go on the back-burner for now. That said,  The Gospel According to Terry is a fun read - something even J will have the patience for 

the Almighty has proven more resilient than His celebrated detractors and would-be assassins. God “has proved remarkably difficult to dispose of”; indeed, atheism itself has proven to be “not as easy as it looks.”

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Quantified Self

This Wired story on Quantified Self and how it will help us all is blithely positive to the point of being amusing. The self is fully quantified only when disparate subject areas of data come together to tell a cohesive story about the person. The fact that someone checks their personal email fifty times a day may have something to do with what is going on in their personal life which in turn may be related to their health or that of a loved one (as an example). 

From an employer's perspective that is wasted hours of productivity but without tracing the issue from start to end any decision made is likely to be incorrect. So does it help the individual to  allow access to all data about themselves irrespective of the context in which it will be used ? Just to ensure that decisions about them are taking all relevant parameters into account. And would that not be an egregious invasion of their privacy ? 

If indeed we allow our selves to be fully quantified, there will be a myriad of opportunities for products and solutions to help us run our lives on auto-pilot, think and take action on our behalf. Free up our time to pursue our dreams, passions and hobbies supposedly. Related technology will become our portal to the world in a much deeper way than anything Google or Facebook is currently capable of. So even with all the free time that we get out of this we may not have the wherewithal to be autonomous people capable of determining our own destiny. We will turn to the portal for assistance.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Pipa In The Afternoon

J was volunteering at the art museum this weekend and I had the chance to listen to a Pipa performance that was part of the event.  All afternoon, there were music and dance performances representing different genres and regions from China. The variation was pretty amazing - to my ears it ranged from the sounds of Begum Akhtar to Kirtan to Sufi music and Kraftwerk. They may have added Yo-Yo Ma in the mix to broaden the appeal but that fit into the continuum quite well. 

Some years back, I had read about wall panels being able to soak up music and turn it into ambient light. Could not help thinking about how all this music may permeate the walls of the museum and change a visitor's experience of the place. When we visit here we usually hear classical music or jazz playing in the background. There is a certain energy that goes with it and it is different from the music of Pipa for instance as described by the poet Bui Jayi

The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers. 
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.
The sweet melody recalls oriole singing among flowers,
The sobbing music brings the gushing spring out of glacier,
The spring frozen, the strings ceased vibration.
The water stopped flowing and silence set in.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Over Giving

In a very different context, someone once told me that I would make a lot better progress if I listened more and talked less. At the time, I did not know that I was actually talking too much or that is how it was being perceived. In my mind, I was drowned in the sea of noise and not being heard for the most part. Maybe being tuned out in certain parts of my life was making me overcompensate in others. Whatever the case, I took the feedback seriously because I respected the person it came from. Since then,  anytime I hear myself more than others in a room, I consciously take pause until there is better balance. 

While visiting with E, I had chance to meet many new people and listen to conversations between several strangers. I don't often meet so many new people socially in such a short period of time. Each time I tried to talk less (or not at all)  so I could understand and absorb what was being said. There was so much food for thought. I felt like I had been given an unique opportunity to learn from the rich life experiences of others who have very little in common with me. Maybe this was my chance to get resolution on things that have long bothered me. I realized for instance, that I am surrounded by over-givers. E being one of them. My former boss and very good friend B is an over-giver on steroids. Their gestures of giving are grand in scale and thoughtfulness. 

When you give and give and give and give and possibly give some more, it’s because you’re an over-giver who doesn’t truly believe that you without the excessive giving is enough. You overdo it because you’re attempting to create a tipping point where the other person will reciprocate and match you and you’ll basically get a return on your investment. When you don’t, you feel devalued by the experience.

Reading this was extremely painful for me. Maybe one day the same person that had advised me on listening more may suggest that I start giving a lot less and she would be dead right.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Recovering from Moldau

This piece by Smetana had some particularly happy associations from me. Recovery from loss of meaning sometimes happens in phases. From where the music could tear me up, with memories so vivid like they were yesterday, to where I can listen and the mind goes completely blank. Once cleansed of memories and associations, it is just music I liked before and still do. The feeling is a lot like taking a shower after a long hike in summer.

Lately for my job, I am having to read quite a bit about data privacy laws and the philosophy of privacy by design. The concept of pseudo-anonymization comes up often. Moldau is pseudo-anonymized music for me now. Despite the pain triggers associated with it, I would still hate for it to turn anonymized making it too disembodied to care about anymore; strip it of memories going further back even before it became rather special. 

Listening to it yesterday made me think about choices we make to allow pain to permeate us so the natural beauty of things can be preserved. 

Interestingly enough, Laura Branigan's Gloria was the perfect antidote to what lay waste in the wake of the dissociated Moldau. In a few seconds I was completely transported to the uncomplicated times of a far away,long ago childhood when I first heard this song. Its been many years since I last did. There is apparently scientific basis for the strong time transportation effect of a song not heard for a long time.

Interestingly, it appears that if you haven't heard a song in years, the neural tapestry representing that song stays purer and the song will evoke stronger specific memories of a time and place from your past. The memories linked to overplayed songs can become diluted because the neural network is constantly being updated.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Making The Book

Reading The Remains of The Day back in my college days was a deeply moving experience. I still recall the feeling of great emptiness after I was done. The girl who recommended this book to me (and gave me her copy to read) was to become one of my good friends. A classy and somewhat distant young lady, she made her boundaries politely but firmly known. She chose you for a friend and not the other way around. I was fine with that and and greatly enjoyed our conversations. She was a voracious reader from very literary family and introduced me to writers I love to this day. We did not stay in touch after college but I am sure she is still the class act she was then with book shelves I would love to browse.

It was interesting to read Kazuo Ishiguro's account of how the book was written - particularly how the denouement came about. Stevens the butler showed his human and romantic side in the end even if many years too late. It was exactly this turn of events that creates that unbearably painful void in the readers mind. This was a reversal from what Ishiguro had originally planned. 

I remembered wondering if Stevens is a parable for all of us who miss opportunities in life or wait too long to take ones that do fortunately come our way. There is also the question about the value of integrity and loyalty - Stevens is an embodiment of those qualities. How much is too much. I saw a little bit of my workaholic father in Stevens - he gave up a lot of his personal life for his job. He may have been a happier man if he made different trade-off decisions. Most of the sacrifices he made did not pay any dividends in his life post retirement. He often says he wishes he could experience a few years of happiness before he died - to him "happiness" is the mirage he pursued all his life but never seized it when it stared him in the face. 

As scary as it was to admit, I saw a little bit of Stevens in myself then and when I re-read the book many years later. It is easy to see who you don't want to become but protecting yourself against it could be a lot more complicated. Salman Rushdie captures the essence of the book perfectly 

"The real story here is that of a man destroyed by the ideas upon which he has built his life. Stevens is much preoccupied by "greatness", which, for him, means something very like restraint."

And that is a theme with universal appeal and hence the brilliance of the book that seems on the surface to be a very simple story. Each of us has a different idea of "greatness" but the zealousness of our pursuit of it is not unlike that of Stevens. So in the sunset of our life we may be weeping uncontrollably to a stranger who cannot fathom the storm that is raging beneath our placid surface. Such is the nature of regret so deep that you cannot run and hide from it.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Art of Losing

I had a strange dream last night. I was talking to someone and could not hear myself saying the words I thought I was saying. It seemed like it was important to me that they heard and understood but they were staring at me in blank incomprehension. I struggled harder and harder to "say" and not just "think" the words but to no avail. The room was silent. The listener and I were silent too.  It was such a vivid dream that when I woke up I thought I had actually lost my voice. I called out to J to make sure I could still speak. 

In One Art, Elizabeth Bishop talks of  the Art of Losing and how it is not hard to master. I don't know what draws me to this poem - maybe it is the gallows humor that in some moods I can relate to particularly well

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

It was amusing to consider if my voice was one of those things that "seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster"

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Creative Frenzy

This New Yorker article on what motivates us to cook was a great and timely read for me. 

"Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go—about who we want to be, how we choose to live. Food has always been expressive of identity, but today those identities are more flexible and fluid; they change over time, and respond to different pressures. "

In the few days that I was at E's I cooked more than I have done in months past. Her eagerness to help and her delight in what I made gave me energy I have missed in my own kitchen for a while. There is also the matter of being able to take time off and shut the mind down - which has proven very hard to do this past year. The change of scenery at E's helped me with both. We went to the local farmers market for produce and meats, tried to use up all that she had left in the fridge to make room for new things in the new year. Beyond that there was no plan - I had a large canvas and varied palette to work with. The experience was a lot like painting free form - something I enjoy a lot.

I realized I have missed creating food where no rules applied. I could go any direction I chose, change plans along the way. J learned to bake apple pie following a recipe from E's grandmother. It was a hugely successful debut based on how quickly it disappeared at dinner at C's. This is the most engaged J has ever been in the kitchen. We have in the past collaborated on art projects and quite successfully but it has never extended to cooking. J's style is completely unlike mine - she is precise, methodical and pursues perfection quite ferociously. Baking should come to her naturally. I have trouble staying on point or following recipes. Perfection is not nearly as important. All of that has made it hard to find common ground in cooking. E reminded me that cooking is a basic life skill the kid has to learn before going to college. So the apple pie was a step in the right direction.

Similar to this somewhat manic streak of cooking, I have experienced other bursts of inspiration lasting up to a few days. Last year it was painting. After seven or eight in a row over that many evenings, it just died. I showed them to my friend S when she visited me recently and she thought they could light up the walls of my home office. I don't know that I feel comfortable displaying them anywhere - mainly because working on them was such a cathartic and emotionally draining experience. I would feel a lot better destroying them but you grow attached to your productions no matter what their quality. 

I notice that I gravitate towards people somewhat similar to me - almost all my friends have some kind of creative outlet. Photography, murals, crochet, gardening, landscaping, baking, jewelry making, refurbishing flea market furniture are among many things they do. Like me they are largely self taught. We have many unfinished projects and those that went horribly wrong. But when we share the successes with each other, it can sometimes drive a burst of creative frenzy. I hope my cooking gave E energy to work on her projects - she has a large queue of them and could use a jump start.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Life Stories

On our way back from Yosemite to Merced, we overheard a very interesting conversation between the bus driver and an old lady seated right behind him. We were the last few passengers in the bus and it created an odd sense of intimacy. It was cold and dark outside and we could have been by a figurative fireplace inside having a conversation with friends except that we were all strangers to each other. The bus driver in a past life had been an industrial engineer, His job involved getting more hours out of the workers and identifying the least productive ones for potential downsizing. He made good money while his friends in the factory suffered more and more each year. This was before their jobs were outsourced to China and the factories themselves closed. You could tell he had many conflicted feelings about that time and not everything had been sorted out yet. Had he helped save the factory workers their jobs for a few more years ? Was he helping the greater good by letting go a few so the rest could still stay ? Or was he part of the destructive process and profited unfairly from it ?

He talked about the moral dilemma of doing what he did for a living and how at one point he decided to leave all that behind him and follow his passion - driving. So now he drives tourists back and forth between Yosemite and the train station at Merced. A series of life events brought him to California and he decided to stay back and drive for a living. It is a job that allows his conscience to rest in peace. The old lady was talking about Alzheimer's in her family.An older sister was already suffering and she herself was beginning to show early signs. The bus driver's mother-in-law was in a facility for Alzheimer patients and he said it was a very hard decision for the family to make. 

The shared experience had created a bond between two people who would likely never run into each other again. We heard them share their views on politics, technology and the relationships. There was much I had in common with them and that felt oddly exhilarating. I did not want to interrupt their conversation and yet I was a part of it by shared ideas. It was lucky happenstance to hear about their life experiences, learn about leaving the grind behind (no matter how well paid) to pursue simple goals much closer to the heart. These are my ideas too (in theory) but I always wonder if it is possible in reality. And if I will know what my dream job is well in time to go find it.For this man the choice seemed so obvious. 

The old lady was making arrangements so that her children would not have to make morally difficult decisions on her behalf. In the meanwhile she was living each day like it mattered. A lot like E planning her travels a year in advance to make sure she checked things off her bucket list as time passed. While our time in Yosemite was all too short and immensely memorable, this conversation made our journey unforgettable. This will stay with me for years. As far as Yosemite goes, I cannot think of any better way to remember what I saw than the Ansel Adams pictures that I first encountered as a kid growing up in India. Even the grand reality of the place does not diminish the haunting beauty of those images in any way.  My uncle, a serious photographer, used to show us the work of Ansel Adams as the standard to aspire for. He mainly shot monochrome and nature doing most of the dark room work with his friend who was a professional photographer.

Back at dinner at C's home where we were invited as E's friends, I met some memorable people too. C is an affluent widow and was clearly in love with her deceased husband. It was heartwarming to see her reminiscence about him, random things triggering happy memories all evening. None of them had to do with material things - they only spoke of the great friendship they must have shared. She was mourning the loss of a lover and best friend. If I had to take away one thing about C it would be gratitude - she appreciates the blessings in her life a great deal. Maybe that is the character defining quality that gave C what she has in her life. The other woman I met there was a university professor and enjoyed gambling more than just a little. Her travels had taken her around the world - specially the far east where she had lived for many years. Her understanding of eastern religions and cultures made her easy to relate to even when our lifestyles were very different. There was also a young couple who looked like they were playing house - not quite a serious marriage yet. When the passage of time brings a couple closer together then they can have a marriage like C's. When I looked at this "perfect" young couple that seemed have everything just right it made me wonder how they may look forty years out.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Letter Sorting

Sorting through my mail last night, I found some addressed to the previous owner of my house. Whoever it was from had long lost track of her because they used her maiden name. I have seen similar cards arrive for her each year during the holidays. Her boys were three and five  when she sold the house four years ago. So these senders of holiday greetings may have been current with her over ten years ago. The lack of context and relevance made me think of growing distance between two people who were once close. 

Communication breaks down in such subtle ways at first that you almost don't notice. The mistimed comment, inability to see what is evident, the odd sentence in an email that fills you with sadness - you had come to expect more sensitivity, failing to pick up non-verbal cues. Small things that don't mean much on their own but are like symptoms of the disease that is to set in.

I have been guilty of neglecting symptoms of a flu telling myself it will pass and is no big deal until it was too late and the worst has happened. So is the case with broken links between people and failing to make the connect time after time. Would these people who never heard back from Ms P wonder why that is ? Would they misunderstand ? If they were important in her life, chances are they would have been informed of the changes in it including her new name and address. Ms P's holiday mail reminded me of lines from a poem by Philip Larkin

So many things I had thought forgotten 
Return to my mind with stranger pain: 
- Like letters that arrive addressed to someone 
Who left the house so many years ago.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Chaotic Travel

My friend E will turn sixty this year. I have known her about ten years now making me a sixth of her life. We were invited to spend time at her home in California during J's winter break. I am living chaos for the last few months trying to keep what balance I can so J can have a protective bubble that nothing can touch. So much like giving birth to her. The physical womb protected her (or so I hope) from the upheaval that was my life then. I am trying to give her a figurative womb now - and some days the task is too daunting for me. There is only so much I can harbor in my arms, in my heart and hope to save her. 

We both love to people watch so airport layovers are not always the purest form of torture - specially when we are traveling together. So much to see, observe and learn. And we compare notes after. J and I take away completely different things that we observed together. I have to ask J about her impressions because mine were cloudy from lack of focus.Thoughts run in the background like so many black and white movies playing back to back. The cast of characters are mostly the same, the settings and stories change over time. Some times I imagine alternate endings, imagine what if I did this or the other where would I be today and twenty years out. Mostly it is the events of the past and that play on endlessly. 

J calls me a wall-hugger because I travel with multiple devices and am always running out of power from the one I need the most at that time. She tells me life is passing me by as I go hug the nearest wall and she is right. This was not a full on vacation for me - I was working most days and had to stay connected atleast some parts of the day. Take calls while squealing babies chased after pigeons or nearly missed the announcement to board our connection

But even with the chaos and distraction that marked my trip, I found a fairly random Italian restaurant near our gate, while waiting for our connection, to be exceptional. The best I have had in a long time. Very uncomplicated and absolutely fulfilling. Maybe there was a deep need there for comfort food and it arrived right on time. I am most certainly not a foodie. I enjoy cooking as a creative outlet and for the joy it may bring to those who eat what I cook.

Meeting E was an interesting experience. When you part from your friends for a while and meet again you at where their dreams meets reality. In E's case, the dreams were relatively simple and yet reality has taken her in unexpected (but largely positive) directions. The dark days are mostly behind her and the clouds are giving way to sunshine slowly. That was a positive sign I did need to see - I like to see my friends get closer to living their dream as they get older. It becomes my source of strength.

The next morning, she took us to an olive grove near her house where she walks her dog. J experienced the joys of olive picking for the first time. The sight of a fruit laden tree is a very nostalgic experience for me - we had many in the garden of the house I grew up in. Later in the afternoon, we cooked in her kitchen. E loves to see me create things on the fly - and reminds me of my much younger friend T who used to say watching me work in the kitchen is a treat. What we start with could be surprisingly far from what is served at the table.

Many herbs in E's kitchen have a story. They are gifts from friends who grow them in their gardens or from her travels. As I used them to cook, I thought about the coming together of friends, strangers, different places and times all in one dish shared with those who are are not connected to these stories. 

In E's kitchen I was closer to her reality than dreams. The chaos that has been her life for the last two decades manifests itself here. Things are impossible to find, I have to make do with an odd assortment of pots and pans, make detours as spices that are supposed to be there cannot be found when I need them. We decide her dog is Buddhist. He is always near the chopping board waiting for bits of vegetables to land on the floor. He loves fruit and vegetables much more than he does his own food. I find that it is not so hard to get along with a friendly dog.

Watching a musical in a small theater was not that different from anything I may experience in my neck of the woods. The average audience is over seventy years old. Some grand-kids were in attendance but a large slice of the population completely absent. Made me wonder about how small theater companies may survive over time. 

We had been to a show in San Francisco a few days before coming over to E's. This was a much larger and professional production and did attract people of all age groups. J found herself seated next to a child actor who had acted on this stage for the last several years. The conversation had an interesting flow - the kid was highly extroverted and could not stop talking about himself. J was trying to engage him but the one-sided nature of the exchange was clearly wearing her out. By trying too hard to impress her with his resume he lost her attention and then moved on to a young boy seated on the other side.

It is interesting to watch J absorb a new place and experiences. Our hotel was in Union Square and in a few hours she grew comfortable navigating the grid of streets. The art galleries, the coffee shops, the aggressive pigeons, the Egyptian restaurant that we could not have enough of. J enjoys feeling like she can blend in with the locals - belonging to the place rather than just visiting. That is also a sign of her liking the place. She is not terribly excited about points of interest and museums but cares about absorbing the ambiance. A flapping pigeon waiting for crumbs from her croissant is just as fascinating to her as the play of light on the geometry of a high rise or the view of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the early morning fog. 

I thought about my own response to museums. Some that I have seen have been an exceptional experience but the sensory overload gets to me quickly. I can take in only a couple of hours at a time before fatigue sets in. At that point it feels like I am going on a gourmet food binge. Our local art museum is hardly the best in the country but has a very respectable collection. J and I have been there more times than we can count. We have developed strong relationships with specific paintings and art installations over the years and like going back to see our favorites. As collections change and new art arrives, we form new friendships. This is how we would really like to experience a museum or even a library or an old bookstore. The relationship is stable but evolving. 

Checking out a top class museum within a few hours in a city that I will rarely if ever return to feels a lot like speed dating with similar outcomes. In an ideal world we would live where our favorite museum does and take years to bond with it. J and I enjoy the small art galleries more - smaller, manageable collections and usually with a specific aesthetic sensibility. Those are much easier to absorb quickly. So while the de Young Museum came highly recommended by E, we chose to skip it given how little time we would have and the size of the collection.

J noted that most science museums are designed for very young kids and there is nothing for older ones (like herself) who have actually studied a few things in school and may want to understand more complex topics,  concepts applied in real life and get to see innovation in action. She was deeply disappointed by the California Academy of Sciences. Having gone with the expectation of being blown away by science and technology in San Francisco, reality fell considerably short. The lunch at the cafe we both agreed was excellent (all things considered) and the high point of our visit there. We discussed how museums such as this one made money and why the model they used made good business sense. 

We walked a lot the three days we were in San Francisco. Wandering into streets that had no designated points of interest. Instead of using our phones for direction, I encouraged J to use the paper map we got at our hotel and if really lost ask someone that looked local for directions. Our primitive methods served us quite well though J was not entirely on board with my plans at first. Using public transport after many years was a crash course experience for me. It has been over ten years since I used it every day. That would be about seventy internet years. Shockingly enough, nothing has changed in the how public transit interacts with customers. Progress in technology has made no discernable impact. The million opportunities to automate and simplify glare you in the eye as you find your way around.

The olives we picked at the grove were pickled with fresh basil from E's patio. I was able to bring it home intact and have a memory from my trip on my kitchen counter-top. It is a time capsule of sorts. The memory of the day when we walked around in slushy grass picking olives, our boots caked in mud, the days that the olives sat in her kitchen while we traveled around, met E's friends for dinner and a fun game of charades, the hours of catching up in her kitchen and finally the night we got around to pickling them celebrating the upcoming New Year with lemontini shots.