I Like Where I am : February 2018

Last week, preparing for a routine colonoscopy (one of those uncomfortable things one has to experience after turning 50), in the early haze of mild anesthesia, my mind wanders. For a change, there is only a light angst, making me think, what will happen to my children, if something happens to my physical self.

The curse of a single parent, with no “back-up” parents, is that you worry incessantly, in your hypothetical absence, what will happen to your minor children. You understand that one is constantly vulnerable to changes in health or external circumstances, but that doesn’t mean you stop worrying. You buy extra life-insurance, you draw up a detailed estate plan, you have conversations with your loved ones, asking them if they will look after your children, and provide them with guidance. But there is always this lingering concern, at the back of your mind.

Moments before my last such hallucinogenic state, I remember wondering exactly what an 8 year old Shania may have done, if I somehow managed to escape during a routine check-up.

But today, Shania is a teenager, and Daiyaan is over 22 and working, paying bills and making her way through this world.

When I observe them together, fighting, arguing, doing sisterly things together – but at night, leaning on each other, when watching their favorite TV show, somehow I accept that, they will be ok, if something happens to me. It’s not going to be easy; but it’s also not impossible. I have also collected enough “together” memories, to leave them Facebook reminders, and digital moments that will spark joy, love, excitement and other emotions, that we commingle to build a life.

With this sense of relative “relief” comes a sort of satisfaction; a deep breath.

As the fog settles, the mind explores. I start imagining, what if something unexpected does happen during routine procedure. At this point, I am looking for bright spots. I think about my smiling mother.

This is the first time, since her passing a couple of years ago, I am in this state of mild cognitive disrepair and I get into an imaginary conversation with her; joking, cajoling, asking me how I have been and how the girls are doing. She asks me what I had for breakfast and if I had brought her back some “Baklava” from the US. We play cards, she makes those facial gestures or little noises, that only she could do. My father, joins us, quietly, smiling – not saying much – thirty years of silence has made him even quieter in my sub-conscious.

This entire haze-filled imaginary interaction, somehow makes me relaxed and fills my heart with an unanticipated calm and joy. To believe that, one has loved ones, on many dimensions, and that escaping from one dimension to the other, may not be as ominous as most organized religions want you to believe.

I want to live forever in my current dimension, no question. But I am also neither concerned, nor sad, about going to the other dimension(s), when that inevitability arrives. A sense of relief, and calm settles in and I float along.

The nurse asks me how I am feeling and if I am ready to put my clothes back on. Outside, in the waiting room, my guardian, Daiyaan awaits to take me home. She flew from Florida to Boston last night to accompany me back from the hospital to home. We discuss lunch, what I want to eat, and the rest of the day. For this day, our roles have reversed and she has become my parent.

On a cold, wintry day, I roll down the car window and let the happy fog of anesthesia slip out, as I take a fresh breath of air. For now, I will remain in this dimension and continue collecting memories with all these amazing, loving people around me.

Today, I like where I am.

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The Peace of No Ringtones: Jan 5 2014

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We haven’t together been to a family-movie for quite some time; there’s always that conflict of schedules, and to complicate matters, there are rarely movies that a eighteen and an eight-year old want to sit through together, for ninety minutes.

Saving Mr. Banks, the tear-jerking, funny and soulful Disney movie, is an occasion to cherish with my two lovely daughters; just as important: for those two hours, I turn my cell-phone off.

As a parent, it often feels that it’s impossible to turn-off your mobile phone!

You feel this nagging need of being wired – knowing – and most importantly availing information about your children.

At the beginning of team-meetings, I often ask my colleagues to mute their cell phones and ask them to refrain from answering, unless it’s a family emergency.

During a date, sometimes, I forewarn the other party, that I do check my phone during an intimate dinner or while watching a play – just because I have kids! My notification comes like the warning from the Surgeon General on a packet of contraband nicotine.

In this world of wired anxiety, our minds often race to juggle quadratic challenges like work, childcare, healthcare and entertainment – all in one swoop, we feel the need and urgency to remain informed – to feel that we are constantly in the loop of things.

If we look back fifteen or so years, mobile phones were rare and bulky – and you had to wait to get all your news until you got to work or home – you didn’t start solving your problems at red-lights.

All this mobility and constancy, may have given us more up-to-date information – and in some cases, ability to solve some urgent problems quickly; however, coupled with our own inability to know when it’s urgent to solve problems, and when it’s ok to wait, I argue, it has also notched up our anxiety levels on unimportant things.

What you don’t know, really can’t hurt you.

Why do we need to know every movement of our children (or parents) or other loved ones on a constant basis; what is the value of this “new” need we have created for ourselves?

In some instances, this anxiety over receiving information, borders the comical.

On my recent visit to Bangladesh, I have lunch or breakfast with some of my “VIP” friends; invariably, they carry multiple cell-phones, chargers and other PDAs, in their expensive leather carriers, as if during a foggy 8:30 am breakfast meeting, over coffee, somehow some massively urgent phone-deal will emerge. One such person tells me, he has one cell phone exclusively for his boss and another one just for his wife – I am relieved to hear that his third cell phone is for common connections like myself!

Looking at the growth projections of mobility technology worldwide, I am convinced the ship for simpler times, when cell phones were rare, has sailed long ago. We might as well, get accustomed to constant mobility-anxiety in our lives.

The question remains, when to turn that cell phone off – or when to hit that “ignore” button during a seemingly involved and often important conversation of life.

I have a rule with my children – if it’s urgent, call me on my mobile twice. I will know that it’s critical to take the call if possible, or call you back  if I see two missed calls.

Maybe one day our smart phones will be smart enough to classify and we can choose separate ring-tones for calls as “critical/urgent”, “important but can wait” and “calls from Mom to check on your weather pattern!”

Just like any other Disney movie, Saving Mr. Banks, ends on a happy-joyous note; we stroll out of the dark theatre discussing the parallels and nuances of the plot and contemplate who wants to have what, for a late lunch.

I don’t turn my cell phone on for another thirty or so minutes, enjoying the peace with the most important people in my life.

There is a certain peace in this ringtone-free world; it maybe temporary and short, but I enjoy the giggling of my girls and the sound of the rain-drops on my windshield for just a few more minutes.

You learn to make the best of whatever time is afforded to you, without the interruptions of the outside world.

The Rhythm of Routines: November 28 2013

The Atlantic is calm as a lake today; it’s a beautiful, sunny and crisp morning; hot milky-tea in hand, with a few mint chocolate Milano cookies, I am thankful for so many routines in my life.
The girls are still sleeping; soon Shania will wake up, and fill up my life with her sparkling laughter and giggles; she will ask me, “Can I ask you a question?” and I will smile and exclaim, “But that is a question!” She will dunk a Milano in my lukewarm tea and spill a drop on the furniture. We will cuddle together on the sofa with a warm blanket, and read a story or watch a cartoon.
These are our simple routines.

Brunch at J marks with Shania
Breakfast at the Jukebox diner where Daiyaan never finishes her bagel; Sunday morning service at Unity followed by brunch with friends at J.Marks, where Shania hides the sweet potato fries from me; A Beach Roll or a Pretty Face Roll at 9 Face Sushi Café followed by handmade ice-cream at Razzleberry’s; a walk on the beach on a warm day.Shania does her Kumon at the dining table; Daiyaan lies on the sofa with the red blanket covering her – even on a warm day.

DZM

These mundane, routine activities are so simple and authentic, and yet so meaningful.
On this typical Thanksgiving day, I am thankful for these repetitive activities in my life. I realize, tomorrow these will morph into something else; but today, they provide continuity and a little piece of heaven .
For today, along with the sunshine, and the blue Atlantic, I embrace these routines.
I heard from a childhood friend last night, where she said that her college-going children are back at home for the holidays; the home is noisy and messy and she is loving it! One of the nicest part of the holidays are when your empty homes fill up again, with those familiar sounds and smells! Those familiar faces – changed, yet same for a few days – trying to re-enact, as close as we can, those moments from the past.
Now I understand, why during every conversation, my mother brings up all her nostalgia and ruefully asks If I remember the day I fell down in our neighbor’s Lilly pond or when our new kitten Koala climbed up a curtain some forty years ago ! She searches for those moments of routine from the past.
When tumult engulfs us, we crave these routines; we try to get to “steady state” by finding or re-creating routines. As if, these little repetitions somehow give a rhythm to our lives.
Recently, I moved from one condo to another, and remember the grueling few days of moving boxes and glassware from one room to another. Every moment of the move, I kept craving these repetitive ritualistic moments. One way to get through a difficult time, is to look back at those memories of routine happiness, and try to remember those times that were relatively more stable or pleasant.
As our lives change over the years, one of the joyful and exhilarating experience is the formation of habits and then subtle changes that occur over time.
When Shania tries something new or decides to not follow the norm, instead of opposing or changing of routine – I try to understand that this change is a normal part of life; the routine is not as critical– but her presence in my life. In any form, shape or routine, Shania and Daiyaan are the most important repetitions that I love in my daily life.
One day, this too will change; just as Daiyaan moved away from home to college and created her own routines in her new life – one day, Shania will do the same.
Until then, I want to enjoy this subtle rhythm of slow mornings, with lazy blankets, milky-tea with cookies and a deep embrace that lasts forever.

Sushi at 9 Face

(Sometimes) You Have to be a Jerk to Get Attention: March 12 2013

One of those “Aha!” moments at a business negotiation class: the irrational negotiator, often (not always) gets the better deal!

Imagine two race car drivers, who are heading towards each other, in high speed, where, if neither party veers off-course, both are destined to mutually assured destruction. No rational person would allow such an outcome! However, one of those race-car drivers will turn/veer allowing the other one to continue and win his course.

In this predicament, we even discussed the possibility of having a spare steering wheel during the race, that can be thrown out of the window, signaling to the other race-car driver that you have absolutely no control of the car; hence forcing him to veer off-course!

Look at the nations of North Korea or Iran today; the war-signals they are sending to the United States, is very similar behaving irrationally, akin to throwing the steering wheel out of the car!! History will tell one day, if they are bluffing or just acting desperate.

Sometimes, we are faced with such a conundrum at work – to behave irrational – so that people can’t take you for granted or be “predictable” on a day-to-day basis.
Once, at a negotiating meeting, with a senior-leader at a multi-billion dollar corporation, he threw a 30 page document across a long mahagony table, letting me know that he doesn’t care!! Definitely was a theatrical and dramatic move that got my attention.

In business life, often the dramatic, chaotic, noisy bullies get more attention than do the sober, rational, pleasant people. As leaders, we must always be aware of this situation and take measures so that bullies don’t rule the world. Once, one of my VPs would habitually start off every meeting with a negative statement. After cringing at his tirade a few times, he had to be confronted that this is unacceptable behavior and neither I, nor his peers appreciated this model.

Office Jerks

Sometimes, you just have to hold your hand up and say STOP. This behavior is unacceptable! Most of the time, this boundary-setting works; sometimes it creates a bit more chaos at first, but eventually the babble-rouser leaves or simmers down.
In my recent personal history, I have also experienced a similar outcome with individuals who want to raise hell, creating chaos in my life. They come attacking you like a jailed cat – if you don’t listen to their threats – they will create massive chaos and destruction in your lives and the ones you love.

In every instance, personal or professional, I have found that the last thing you want to do is pay too much attention to noise-makers; also you don’t want to be the completely predictable, “dull & boring” (D&B) bosses or partners. Not sure if it’s just our animal instincts, but people react and respond sometimes – when there is measured unpredictability! You don’t have to be a (complete) jerk – neither do you have to be a (really) nice guy; you have to find a delicate balance of both.

In a recent personal crisis, I took the helm of the situation, calmed everybody down – made difficult decisions and most importantly, shouldered the responsibilities of life alone – without help from anyone. At one point, my nicety was taken as a sign of weakness – and some people wanted me to take more responsibility and/or have just taken me for granted.

I have found, just by a “gentle” push back – majority of these situations can be corrected. At the end, there are fewer jerks you have to take on one-on-one in a confrontation. In that case, come prepared with examples, situations and your worst-day, bad-anxiety behavior. Hopefully, that rarely happens to you.

However much we try to remain leveled, and do the right, rational and fair thing – the world sometimes needs boundary-setting. As we try our best to accommodate every one else’s best interest, it’s also very important that we are treated fairly by others.

Pizza and Ice Cream for Breakfast: October 2010

The first time I had pizza and ice-cream for breakfast, a junior in College, at Columbia, Missouri –I felt, free.

Growing up in a disciplined environment, there were lots of rules. Rules about everything: what to eat, what to wear on Fridays, which way to sit up and how to address your elders. Eggs with toast in the morning – white rice with vegetables/fish in the afternoon – a type of Chapati (flat wheat bread) with some protein in the evening. We were required to drink tasteless milk from plastic packets written Milk Vita – with the logo of a blue, expression-free cow on the packet.

Some Bangalee saying dicated that you do not eat fish or bananas in the evenings; some religious incantation dictated that you should not be out of the house around the particular crimson time of sunset (illusory Jinn roaming around the vicinity, waiting to jump on your head).

It’s incredulous to think about all the rules we had. It was very unusual to question the wisdom or vicarious nature of these rules. If you did question, you were considered a rebel; which in some instances meant, your friends would snare at you or neighbors would label you as Noshto (gone to dogs).

My sister and I, the amicable sort, never challenged the dogma – afraid of the wrath that would befall us – if we deviated from this bizarre, yellow brick road. Some boisterous cousins could never understand the lack of will on our part, to complain or counter these obstinate rules.

Once I remember asking our Quran teacher, Moulobi (Mullah), whether God had a beard. He got enraged and complained to my mom; I prefer to forget the punishment that came with that innocuous question.

Around my high school years, I stopped wearing the skull cap when going to the mosque. The concept around wearing the skull cap, that Shoitan (Satan) could (literally) not sit on your head, when you prayed. For a teenager, that predilection (of Shoitan not accompanying you) was pretty tough. However, as I would enter the mosque, or just before the prayer time, strangers would scurry around trying to find me a cap to ensure that my skull-cap free prayers would be “accepted” by God.

Doctors, diet magazines and all sorts of Oprah type of shows now tell us to have a protein-rich breakfast (with egg-whites) – avoid any sugar/caffeine in the morning, and preferably, have a glass of tomato juice (specially for men). Being the obedient “rule follower”, that’s typically the diet I follow, every week day.

This Sunday morning, I am eyeing the left-over pizza in the fridge. When Shania, my five year old, looks at the pizza and asks me for a slice, I don’t hesitate for a moment. I cut her two generous slices, warm up for 20 seconds in the microwave oven and serve it on her favorite Hello Kitty plate.

Life’s too short for these absurd rules. Enjoy your pizza, my little one. Would you like a choco-bar ice-cream after that? Not sugar free, not low-fat. Just regular vanilla bean, covered with smooth, dark chocolate crust – let it convert in your mouth into sheer, unadulterated, happiness and freedom.

Struggles of a Rational Evil Eye

Last week was great; closed some long-anticipated deals, recruited a great leader to the team, had lots of positive press from external visits; and then, on Tuesday, SMACK! Got hit by a racquetball and ruptured my eardrum with 2 holes and now I have significant hearing loss.

Whenever things seem to be going great, why do accidents like these happen? One has to wonder if these accidents just happen to me? Just when things seem to be moving along “great”, a projectile comes from the “left field” that knocks me off base.

There was a time, when I prescribed to the notion that life just “happens”. One day you are really happy, followed by a sad day and then again swinging back – imitating a perpetual pendulum; there was, really, no point in planning or strategizing outcomes. Someone in my undergrad statistics class told me that “Life is a Bell Curve”; 10% happiness, 10% sadness and everything else, is kinda “in-between” or as Bangalees would say, mota-muti (Just OK).

Is that what life’s about? Do we get doses of good and bad news on an (almost) alternate basis? Or maybe when we are ‘riding high’, we tend to let down our guards and are typically prone to make more mistakes.

There are some friends who view life from somewhat of a dark angle; their view: life is nothing but a series of disasters and accidents, and one has to be paranoid about everything/everybody. Having drunk the coolaid from a glass that’s always half full, somehow, I have avoided the subscription from the Gloom Doom Quarterly.

Now let’s take a completely different angle. Maybe it’s not all “rational”; maybe we can take the superstitious route of eastern cultures, where the concept of Nojor (the Evil Eye) is common. From the northern African villages to the great expanses of Turkey, India or reaching all the way into China, billions of people, for centuries, have taken the concept of “evil eye” with different degrees of seriousness.

It is a common belief in eastern cultures, that, whenever something good happens, there are evil spirits lurking from that dark corner and BAM! a racquetball hits you. In Bangladesh, the dearest of your possessions (typically young babies) are spotted with a black dot on their forehead so that this Nojor thing does not get this cute baby sick. The cultural psyche of Nojor is so strong, that one of the common characteristics of Bangladeshis, when asked how they are doing, will never say, “Fantastic”, or even “Great”. Typically they will clasp and rotate their wrists, and describe their condition as “Mota Muti”… meaning not very good but not bad either; Just OK.

In the West, there are similar superstitions when we notice the concepts of “knocking on wood” or “keeping one’s fingers crossed” when things are going good. When you are born in the superstitious corridors of the East but grow up in the rational West, it feels like one side of my brain craves for rationality and tells me that everything has a reason (or mathematical calculation); on the other hand, my irrational Eastern brain is pleased with American Airlines when it doesn’t see a 13th row on their aircrafts.

As I look at my children, who are not tortured by these dualities, sometimes, I wonder how these mysteries will figure on their psyche. I admire and appreciate their sense of the casual, care-free spirit where these superstitions haven’t (yet) burdened them. My four year old has the natural instinct of what’s good and bad for her. She is inherently cautious by the pool and leery of strangers; her instincts seem to guide her a lot better than all our experiences.

We will let them be their free self and form their own beliefs; however, the beautiful “Nazar” we got from Istanbul is hanging by the door that protects us. Not because some evil genie will visit us; but because it puts our mind at peace; this discombobulated Eastern/Western brain is not yet ready to take any risks; it’s almost like a low premium life insurance. I want to believe I will never need it. But I haven’t yet learned how to live without it.

The Apple Tree Conundrum

“There may have been a strong wind blowing the day the apple fell from the tree” was the quote I heard on a sitcom recently.

Everyone thinks they are very different from their parents. Some try their best to be different from their parents. Can one really be that different, even if they live in different continents or in completely juxtaposed opposite lives?

It always amazes me to think how different (and alike) we are from our parents (and children) and where these similarities start or end.

Recently I was reminded of an incidence in my seventh/eighth grade. I was sad the day my mom told me to stop associating with a new friend because he came from a “different” type of family. In the mid 70s/80s in Bangladesh, we were the limited income families and my new friend’s parents came from a “baniya” (business) background and had more of a freewheeling (money spending) lifestyle. My mother explained that they had very different “values” and I couldn’t be friends with him no more!

It seems bizarre in today’s context, but I lost my friend and since then, have not re-connected with him.

Recently, we told our teenager to stop mixing with one of her friends because we found her parents to be obnoxious and rude (from many different, unexplained dimensions). I know it sounds weird, but the question remains: can the apple really fall that far from the tree?

The ultimate debate of “nature” vs. “nurture” rages on in academia, but what my mother did some thirty years ago and what we are trying to do, today, are ironically not that different. Sometimes misguided, (but mostly on mark,) parental instincts, always drive us to try and protect our children from harm and heartbreak. We have this inner confidence that, having been through our own experiences, we now have much more wisdom (!) to pass our learning to our naïve children.

Sometimes I wonder, had I remained friends with that lanky kid in Dhaka, would I have turned up, somehow, a different person? Many of my parents friends’ children, coming from these “middle/limited income families” made ostentatiously egregious life-choices and didn’t turn out any better/worse.

I realize that not all families have similar biases. In today’s day/age, a blacksmiths son doesn’t necessarily have to become a blacksmith. Men and women our age are charting completely different courses of lives from their parents (and ancestry). I also don’t (in my mind) believe that a seriel killer’s son has to be a seriel killer.

We talk the large egalitarian dream of being completely unbiased and nonchalant about the environment and its surroundings. We parrot large, classically American phrases: Fairness, Equality, Justice!

But in the prisms of our heart, we hold that darkness (or maybe it’s light), that causes us to think of lurking danger when we see an alcoholic or an abusive parent and tell our daughters to stay away from their sons.

My heart wishes to be more egalitarian; I wish I could tell my teenage daughter to be just open her arms to all who enter her life; but I have not been able to reconcile between what my mind thinks and how my heart feels.

My frailty is that I love her too much and I just cannot watch her getting hurt. Even living in a different continent, like my parents, I superimpose my biases on her every day, with the associations I choose and the values I chastise.

In my mind, I know, that this maybe a complete mistake. But, in my heart, my child’s protection becomes my ultimate priority.

After all, now, that I feel that my tree has a purpose of its own, when my apple lands on the ground, I want no bruises (and I don’t want the wind to blow too strongly either).

At the end of the day, my identity has evolved: from a liberal educated man to a careful, protective parent.