Upgrades of Life. March 2018

Late last year, I upgraded my IPhone and my car; same brands, just newer versions and different models; The IPhone X is a delight to switch from my news, to texting, and then to music, and my phone battery doesn’t die; the Audi Q5 overhead sunroof, along with Audi Pre-sense, which tells me about approaching traffic, and with Appleplay, makes my morning commute more productive and long distance driving definitely more enjoyable.

Some upgrades, in accessories, are definitely good.

When you leave your birth land, to find a my new country, is that a good upgrade?

When one leaves a boss who is described as, the bear from the movie The Revenant, scratching your eyeballs out every morning, is that an upgrade?

When one moves on, from high-school friends, who don’t really understand or empathize, to build your own new community, is that an upgrade?

Our lives are full of choices; sort of “forks in the road”. I have written in the past, of being at an intersection or crossroads – with decisions to be made. Not every decision, is an upgrade. On the other hand, if one is willing to do the hard work of research, and is committed to the investment, one can choose to make that turn in the fork, an improvement.

I made a choice, some thirty years ago, to leave my loving, warm family, and move thousands of miles away, to a whole different land – and start fresh. Many of my friends stayed behind and made their lives in Bangladesh – and then others have gone to Europe or Australia. No one ever is in the position to judge, why or how someone makes that decision to leave home – and one cannot consider these decisions upgrades or downgrades – who am I to say that my life in the US is an upgrade from my friends who chose to live in Bangladesh, or, for that matter, move to Australia. What’s most important is that they are happy and content wherever they have chosen to live.

Even since moving to the US, I have lived in some 11 homes, in 8 states in 33 years. Once, my young daughter came from school and asked if we were in the witness protection program! At least twice during these times, in Denver and Fort Lauderdale, I felt that I found my home and was going to live there forever. Then life changed; an amazing career move led me to Florida, where I thought we had built permanence. Then disease struck our family and we had to make a drastic move out of Florida.

I always wanted to live in a real city, coffee shops and crazy restaurants in every corner. I wanted a walkability score of 90+, coupled with heady intellectualism. When we moved to Cambridge, we found all that and more. Museums, a vibrant cultural scene, beautiful green spaces, and access to a coastal town, Ogunquit or Provincetown, in 90 or so minutes. I meet the most curious and intriguing people here; our dinner conversations are often about Blockchain and artificial intelligence, and the number of new fusion restaurants here are beyond my count. From late April to late October, Cambridge is a wonderful place to live. However, I also crave those blue waters of Florida, palm trees and that afternoon drizzle, soothes my soul.

January 2017, on my 50th birthday, I finally decided that however many days I have, I want some Florida in my life. So, I took the plunge and decided to build something which I could eventually call my home, at least for a portion of my life. Sometimes, in life, upgrades are necessary, and then other times, you know you gave up something good, that you just want back, even if it’s for a portion of your life.

There are other decisions, that are quite easily made, even if someone makes them for you! No regrets about leaving that annoying boss who makes you cringe every day, or puts their feet up on the desk while talking to a customer in their office. No regrets about letting friends go, when they bring you down more than they lift you up – however long that friendship maybe. In my experience, work or friends, if they are not willing to listen, or be “additive” in your life – should be upgraded quickly – without regret.

After a long day of dueling decisions, argumentative employees, fighting crazy traffic, when you return home and your twelve year old asks you, what’s the highlight of your day Daddy?, and you respond, without hesitation, dinner with you, honey!… that’s when you know, that some things in life are best just the way they are, without upgrades.

Beautiful sunrise by my new home in Oakland Park. Not upgradable

The Sunrise Last at the beach by my home in Florida. Not Upgradeable.

Thirty Years to Lose A Homeland : September 2015

The Crooked Roadsign of Gulshan
The Crooked Roadsign of Gulshan

I walk the side streets of a prestigious Dhaka neighborhood; large quixotic holes, stoundingly high speed-bumps and crooked road-signs litter most streets. Everything seems crumbling, misapplied, and fractured – as if someone just haphazardly shoved a bunch of dirty clothes in their closet.

There is garbage and the smell of feces everywhere. People navigate this squalor and walk-around to get to their destination, as if nothing bothers them; this filth and stench, is a normal part of their lives. Drop an hour of monsoon rains, and these same streets become a combined sewer cesspool.

The roads here are so congested that it takes over two hours to go eight miles during regular business hours. Dinner parties start around 10 pm just to accommodate the traffic fiasco.

This is the same city I was born in. From the look and feel of it, it’s hard to understand why and how one would deliberately choose to live in a city like this.

I meet several groups of friends and family during my short stays; everyone acknowledges the development in the country during the last 3 decades; however, I don’t hear a single one taking a “stay-cation” in Dhaka. They can’t wait to escape to Bangkok, Singapore, Colombo or some Exotic European city for “a breather”, as they put it. Hope for improving Dhaka, as a livable city, seems to have completely gone out of the window.

Paradoxically, property values have climbed so high that sometimes a small apartment here costs more than that of Chicago, or even some areas of New York City.

I realize, I am frustrated, upset and anxious.

The last 9 months, I have been traveling back and forth to Dhaka to visit my convalescing mother from a debilitating illness. From the moment, I land at the cramped and moldy 80s style airport with a really long name, I am not myself.

I try to cheer-up her caregivers, work with the team of people, who help orchestrate the necessary infrastructure to provide care and comfort to my ailing mom.

And then, I swiftly run back to my home in the United States.

Because, I just cannot breathe here.

As if, just like my ailing mom, I am slowly, but painfully losing my city of birth.

Nothing appears the same here as I knew it. My close friends have all migrated to Europe, Australia or North America. There a couple who chose to stay, express their remorse and regret staying back.They are now in a hurry to make accommodations for their children somewhere.

The house where my parents lived has been replaced by a 11 story unremarkable, concrete monolith.

I don’t recognize my home, I don’t recognize these people, nor it’s filth, squalor or just abstract randomness.

Definition of home always includes a safe place, a warm place, filled with peace and love.

I feel no peace in this city.

Once my Mom passes, the biggest portion of that love that I have felt here, will also disappear. I can feel it’s imminence creep on my back, like one of those spiders.

It has taken me thirty years to lose my homeland.

Or maybe, just maybe, my homeland has lost me.

Memory of Home – Craving For A Place to Belong: From Merrimac to Marina Drive

Daiyaan sends a short text, “Daddy, I don’t want to come home because it hurts me too much, that we are selling the house.”

I take a deep breath and sit back; when I moved into this home, I imagined retiring from this place,  imagined Daiyaan’s wedding on the small patch of grass by our backyard; I had believed this as my final destination. In the next six weeks, we will be moving to a new place to live – smaller, more manageable for my new life.

I was in the pool last night– staring at the banana and coconut trees, listening to my favorite tunes – soaking in the happiness this home has given me.

A home has a lot of meaning; a lot of connections. When people move to new homes, sometimes they try to hold on, to their past, that has become the fabric of their souls. I have written in the past about Anchoring in an Uncertain Sea; as first generation immigrants, the concept of “anchoring” has a very special meaning, for many of us.

In my 45 years, this is the first home I have lived 5 years in one home; the first eighteen years of my life, with my parents in Bangladesh, we moved 6 times. In the last 18 years of family life, I have moved in-and-out of new homes, 7 times.

I bought my first home on Merrimac Road with a singular goal; to demonstrate to my family that I had finally attained “stability”:  I had a job, and I was pursuing the American dream. The small three bedroom home, without central air and only one bathroom, is where I moved into with my unstable sofa and a single mattress. The night before I signed the bank papers, my mother, coincidentally was visiting me in Toledo and complained incessantly about why I had to take on such a big “responsibility”.

Daiyaan and I at our first home on Merrimac Lane in Toledo, OH – Spring 1996

I started my career and family from Merrimac road;  I met my future wife and made her a cup of International Coffee one evening, the first time we met. I got married and brought her home here; we bought our first new car, a dark blue Toyota Corolla.  Our first child, Daiyaan came home and slept on my chest, the first night of my transition to fatherhood on a warm summer evening. There was a beautiful Dogwood tree on the front yard, which was in full bloom when Daiyaan arrived.

Daiyaan and I at our 2nd home in Perrysburg, Ohio Summer 1997

After 4 years of Merrimac Road, right around Daiyaan’s first birthday, we moved to our first custom-built home in Perrysburg, Ohio.  Since then, we have never stayed at a house very long. Fifteen years later, I arrived in South Florida; in between, we bought and sold, four other homes in far away places like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Colorado.

The first time I stepped into our new home on Marina Drive, I felt at peace; I believed,  I would retire and live in this home forever. Shania learned to swim, read and carve a pumpkin, at this home.

Shania carves her first pumpkin at our home!

Daiyaan finished middle school here. We went away to Spain, Australia, Morocco and many other places from this home. But every time we went away, I  felt that I could come back to this blue-green home, where I felt safe – I felt that my soul had a place to rest. The little patch of grass in the backyard, surrounded by coconut trees is where my imaginary hammock rests.

Daiyaan, Shania and I when we first came to our “blue green house” at Marina Drive 2007

Heartbreak, success, anger, celebration, pain, glory and variety other emotions are commingled in this space which has provided with shelter and continuity during a very tranquil and subsequently, a very difficult “turning-point” in my life.

When I sit outside on the patio, listening to the sound of our inter-coastal waters, I  feel peace; I feel blessed that I was given the opportunity to have this as my home for this period in my life.

With my uncertain, anxious heart, I send a text back to my daughter, “Baba,  A house is just a box – it’s where people live – the people are more important than the box”.  

I know by consoling her, I am consoling myself as I start the search for the next stage of my life.

Our backyard in Lighthouse Point Summer 2011

ME-CATION : Manuel Antonio Natural Preserve, Costa Rica

Beautiful Manuel Antonio Natural Preserves

A “Me-cation” is a short trip that you design and take where only you get to set the agenda – it caters to your own senses. If you feel like lazing all day and reading, that’s your call or if you’d rather hike a forest, or just browse some book-stores – that’s fine too! You eat only the food you choose – listening to only your favorite tunes  – and best of all – nap whenever you feel like!

Last year, I took my first me-cation searching for lighthouses at Cod Cape

This year, recently, I journeyed back to Costa Rica after 12 years.  Manuel Antonio Natural Preserves came highly recommended– plenty of natural treks, completely serene lush greenery – monkeys and butterflies make you feel like you are in enchanting forest!

When I was maybe 7, my family lived in this wonderful place called Joypahar, in Chittagong Bangladesh. Our home was a magical Bungalow with Teak flooring, in the middle of a mangrove forest.  A large banyan tree on our driveway, a rock garden, a steep drive down-hill, lots of nature trails, lots of places to get lost! Dr. Yusuf’s “next” bungalow number 7 was a downhill rock-step! I learned to ride a bike in Joypahar.

Landing in Quepos in this little plane after a 20 minute plane ride!

When I flew into Manuel Antonio last week, landing on the small airstrip via the 20 minute Air Sansa flight from San Jose, the first feeling of the place was as if magically,  I had time-traveled to Joypahar!

After settling down in my cozy hotel, went for a dip in the pool and tasted my first caiparenha – sugarcane with a twist of lemon! From the pool, the view of the Pacific stretched out far away! It was great just to sit in the pool and look out in the horizon!

View of the ocean from the infinity pool! Looks even better with a drink in hand!

A short nap and afterwards, a seafood risotto accompanied with a light Shiraz, I planned my ziplining tour for the following morning. On the way to my room, I crossed paths with a white faced monkey who looked at me, as if saying, “What are YOU doing here? “

What are YOU doing here?

Breakfast in Costa Rica, starts with freshly sliced mangoes and papayas. Then one can choose between a made-from-scratch omlette or some black bean rice and shredded chicken/beef! All of this with fresh guava juice, and a fresh assortment of breads and desserts! One can get used to this lifestyle easily.

This is where we started – up on a tree-house like structure!

We drive 45 minutes through palm forests to get to the Canopy safari ziplining tour site. After a brush with hundreds of beautiful butterflies, we started our adventure.  From treetop to treetop, about eight of us were anchored and zipped through one of the most luscious greens I have seen. Touching trees, and leaves and the sheer ecstasy of hanging upside down while flying at 120 feet above the ground or over a stream is exhilarating at the least!

Hanging from my zipline!

The best feeling was when it started to rain and we were ziplining away in the open rain – as if God had decided to send down the shower just to make things more fun and soothing at the same time.

I woke up from my nap on the beach to this view!

Next day, took a bus to the Manuel Antonio Beach and walked the beach to get to a shady spot. It was easy to fall asleep on a bench, looking up at these beautiful trees that are protecting the beach. I woke up watching a green iguana climbing a tree nearby. The tide was coming in and there were plenty of surfers enjoying the ocean. I went and played in the tides for a while and decided to go the nearby thatched roof restaurant for a caiperenha and some sautéed seafood on a toasted piece of French bread.

Seafood on a toast with my Caiperenha! Tastes great after a swim on the beach

Next day, I joined some other tourists from Texas and Mississippi in a wonderful half-day whitewater rafting trip down the Naranjo river; high-octane at times, with twists and turns around lush landscape and lots of bamboo and birds. We went under a tree where a sleeping snake hovered around our heads. Two of our fellow rafters were squealing and screeching at the snake. The snake was probably more surprised than we were at this human intervention.

Beautiful rivers thru lush forests!

The locals recommended two great restaurants to try in Quepos. I loved Kapi Kapi for its Asian-Latin fusion food; I tried a wonderful crusted Mahi with a Soy glaze; The Aqua Azul experience was just as good; I felt as if I was up on a tree house – with no windows. The rain poured down around us and we lost power for a few minutes. With the singing rain, and darkness around me, once again, I was transported back to a childhood, to Joypahar.

As we get older, we tend to look backward, to those days in our lives, that were care-free or fun; when the world had few expectations of you – and you could have uninterrupted fun.

Today, as I look back at my three me-cation days in Costa Rica, while full of adventurous fun, it also helped me re-connect with my childhood – lush green hue and music in the air, a few no-worries type of days, making life worth living.

Room with a view out to the ocean and the rainforest!

Warm Crevices of Habit: April 1 2012

I still remember in the 1980s, in Dhaka, every evening, right after the 8 pm English News was over, on the solo Bangladesh TV channel, my family gathered around the dark mahogany dining table for weeknight dinners; it was usually chapatti (wheat flatbread) with vegetables, Daal (lentils), sometimes egg curry or chicken – never more than one protein. Fish was not served at dinner, due to superstition of bones getting stuck in your throat at night, and beef, of course, considered too heavy for an evening meal.

My family would congregate and often talk about what we learned today, a mundane political affair in an autocrat run state, something from my mother’s experience from her Shaheen School days or something about a friend or relative getting married, sick, having babies or conducting themselves hideously.

I remember my sister, the quieter one, listening and joining in once in a while; my mother always had a lot to say; I have never been bashful about my idiosyncratic opinions. However, I don’t remember my father saying much. Once in a while a pointed question, maybe some humor – but mostly listening and smiling.

To this day, my heart fills with a warm sensation remembering the call “Raatrer Khaabar Ready” (Dinner’s Ready)!

A couple of years ago, in my contemporary life, I would return from work, kiss my loved ones on their forehead, and there would be cacophony around our kitchen – pots and pots clanging, the hissing of something frying or the bang of the microwave door! There was a comfort of pouring my first glass of wine – to start a conversation – or to just sit outside on the patio with some cashews.

Warmth of habits makes us comfortable with who we are, where we land, how we think, behave and crave.

Habits form over repetition, and necessity – but eventually become a part of us or in effect, turn ourselves into a part of them.  In some ways, habits and mundane rituals, provide continuity and something to look forward to.

At work, it’s the Monday morning leadership meeting where we learn from each other what’s going on in our often disparate worlds; often it’s a Friday afternoon skip-level meeting, where I learn about the challenges facing our company from a cross-section of our team members.

Habits often also connect with special material goods or specific brands. I distinctly remember the Dhaka habit of dunking Nabisco Glucose biscuits (cookies), into my hot-sweet-milky tea – or the joys of getting the green peyara (Guava) from my grandmother’s peyara tree; the ecstacy of jorda shemai (fried vermicelli with lots of sugar and buttery ghee) on Eid day,  or my favorite balushai from Alauddin (sweet store). Today, my habits form around food from a special chef, or a wine from a delicate vineyard.

I observe my children and their early habit formations. Daiyaan loves her paratha with eggs or bagel with egg whites on Saturday mornings; Shania loves a tender, juicy slice of roast beef at brunch on Sundays at the club. On evenings, when we are together, we love the time we spend huddled around the kitchen counter-top eating Thai dishes with that greasy, thai roti (flatbread). Shania, when she is happy in her perfectly orchestrated ritual, often says, “It feels like heaven!”

On a lazy afternoon boat-ride, I love my two princesses habit of singing Que Sera Sera or talking about a salty kiss from the Atlantic.

Over time, our habits change; maybe a departure or addition, changes our lives.

While we are creatures of habit, the changes in our life continue to shape future habits.

I like my habits. I like basking in these little cracks of life; maybe I could find a better tea than Red Rose, or a better beer than the Corona? But the taste of that tea or beer helps evoke memories of a certain time, that may not always be top of mind.

After having atrociously cold delicacies in some wretched foreign land, when I land back home, the first thing I want is a hot shower, followed by a juicy hamburger and maybe a milkshake or Coke Zero.

My physician me warn, that’s too much red-meat or sugar, I will switch to melting tofu over quinoa and brown rice, mushrooms and lima beans. But until then, let me enjoy my burger-shake combo and be happy in my warm crevice of heaven!

Ekla Cholo: If No One Listens To Your Call: March 2012

In 1970 When India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressed the United Nations, in the face of tremendous opposition of the United States and its western allies, making her case for an Independant Bangladesh, she invoked Robindronath Thakur’s “Ekla Cholo Rey”: She recited:

“Jodi Tor Daak Shuney Keu Naa Ashey (If no one listens to your call) Tobey Ekla Cholo Rey” (Then go it alone)

Its an amazing poem, with multiple levels of messages about standing up on your own, carrying your own beliefs and moving forward – even if the world is not ready for you – or disagrees with you. To listen to the musical rendition, please click: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPqdlR_X1Vk)

There are times in our lives, as individuals, this message has a stronghold of significance.

I remember, when I first graduated from college, I took a relatively low-paying job (even though I had a technically oriented, post-graduate degree); many of my peers, professors and family friends discouraged me from taking that job. Just like now, in 1992, the US economy was uncertain (Iraq war, recession) and I didn’t have the coveted “Green Card”. I saw this role as a “no-regrets” option; I did work for this small, family-owned company for 4 years and it turned out to be one of the most challenging and entrepreneurial roles I have ever had.

For a young man, struggling to make ends meet, Ekla Cholo, is about taking a job that may not be the right role for you – because it pays the bills; for a young girl in love, it may mean marrying someone that your family dislikes; for another unwed mother, it may mean carrying a baby even though your own community disowns you.

For a nation, like Israel or Bangladesh, it may mean facing the odds – even if the whole world disagrees, creating a nation based on principles of a people that have a common bond!

Whatever the significance, this Going it Alone, is something almost everyone faces, at some point. Recently, I faced a struggle, where many (of my well-wishers) called me; without knowing the subtext of conditions, they urge me to take one path or another in my journey.

Upon contemplation, it’s clear that I cannot really let these forces sway me. Whatever decision one makes, we make someone unhappy. Even if we make everyone else happy, at the end, we ourselves may not be happy!

In social structures, it’s common to articulate a view of “for the greater good” – which (typically) isolate and denigrate the individuals view or interest. Most organizational, social, church and national norms are designed on this basis of limiting the individual interest (over the greater good). In social and tribal structures, especially old ones, the rights of the individual are often overlooked or underplayed, to “benefit the greater good”.

United States is the only nation, that was founded on the basis of individual liberty and justice; this society respects the individual right more than most other traditional societies. While greater good is emphasized, it is not the only determinant of social norms.

I remember, as a child, my mother always reminded me of this same song and my favorite part of the song was,

Jodi keu kotha na koy  (If all stops talking to you),

Jodi shobai thakey mukh pheraye, shobai korey bhoi (if everyone looks away scared),

Tobey Poran khuley, mukh phootey tor moner kotha ekla bolorey (speak out and let everyone hear your solo voice)”

At the end, the truth always prevails; Bangladesh and Israel survive on their own right; similarly, individuals who bear the hard truth risking going against the tide, will also prevail. It maybe painful and solitary at times – but at the end, the message remains crystal clear.

The Pull of Contradictions (Dotana): November 2011

It’s easy to love one thing, people, nation, religion or race; it’s a lot more difficult to
love different types of things or people, which may contradict each other.

As a child, it’s difficult to grasp the symbolism of a game of tug-of-war during a friend’s birthday. We pull, laugh and fall on the ground as the rope keeps moving in one direction or another.

On a trip back to Bangladesh, like a game of tug-of-war, I feel a tug at my heart.

The warmth and affection, from friends and family,  is addictive. When you are “visiting”,everyone loves you for these precious moments. They visit you, invite you to join them for a meal, shower you with gifts, and offer you unsolicited advice – in no particular order.

While sitting in my mother’s living room, thousands of miles away from home, I feel
the craving to play with Shania, my six-year old, in our pool or go on a sunset boat ride with Daiyaan and get a salty kiss from the Atlantic! I want to be here and there at the same time.

The classic immigrant dilemma: I want my two worlds to commingle.

At the end, though, how we sort through these contradictory urges, makes us human.

Is it, by taking the path of least resistance? Or, is it by making the most difficult path?

Many immigrants, face a trigger-decision at one point or another; give up your career goals or the interest of your children’s education, to fulfill your wish to be with and take care of an aging parent? Or – abandon the parent, to achieve your life-long goals and to ensure the future safety and security of your children?

When the heart is involved, I think it’s difficult to think about all of the options and consequences with a clear mind or perfect heart. Sometimes there is a triggering event that forces one to make a choice – a tragedy, disaster or some pinnacle event. It’s easy that way – blame it on the circumstances! “Ja hoi, bhalor jonnoi hoi (Whatever happens, happens for the best).”

Last Year, I wrote about making decisions with “No Regrets”. (https://zainmahmood.wordpress.com/decisions-with-no-regrets/)

Sorting out a dotana however, is not always that simple. There are (at least) two options to

  1. Give-in and let pre-determination, “whatever happens, happens for a reason”, take over.  Let destiny choose its course, look for divine intervention to sort out the dilemma. And pray hard.
  2. Seek an “elegant” solution that meets most of yours, and other stakeholders’ needs.

Neither path is perfect – rarely is there a guarantee of blissful happiness.

The deterministic path makes some nervous – mostly those who believe that outcomes can be managed, maneuvered.

The elegant choice path requires working hard, prioritizing, making choices and acting on those choices.

Having tried both paths, my personal inclination is to try the latter first, and if no
headway, succumb to the former! This path, if all fails, gives me the excuse, that at least, “I tried”.

In college, I knew studying Engineering was the more practical option – but passionately loved Economics as a field to study. The solution was to pursue a major in Engineering and a minor in Economics. The practical outcome-based decision overruled my heart. Clearly, that decision has served me well for twenty years!

However, not all decisions in life turn out that simple, or with a pleasant outcome.  Sometimes, one finds themselves making the decisions on which path would lead to a “lesser negative” outcome. Recently, a friend shared his personal experience of disconnecting life-support to one of his parents after many months of coma; everyone looked at him to make that decision. Even today, he wakes up in the middle of the night, crying and perspiring.

After everything is said and done, there are no perfect decisions.  As we grow older, we confront our decisions with courage and some level of moral intensity – or with a deep belief that God (or some Universal Energy) will aid and abet us in sorting out the outcome – the only choice we really have is to prepare to live with the consequences of that particular decision.

When things go haywire, we can choose to be a victim or, own up to our decision and live
the best we can, under the changed circumstances. Second guessing ourselves, “could’ve,
should’ve, would’ve, done this or that” is rarely of much use. Instead, let’s accept the new reality, learn from the experience and try to make the best, again, whenever the situation calls for it.

On a dusty Dhaka evening, outside the airport, I put my bags on a trolley, kiss my mother’s
forehead and tell her that we will see each other soon. There is lingering anxiety and questions in the air; in silence, our eyes ask each other, when will I see you again, are you going to be all-right in this alone world. I see tears in her eyes and turn away because I don’t want her to notice mine. I can hear her saying from the back, “Bhalo Thako, Baba
(Stay well).”

I wish, like that childhood party game, every tug-of-war life decision, was simple, scar-free, and didn’t involve getting hurt or hurting someone else. We could laugh, scream, pull harder and worst, fall on the ground; after the game, there was always lemonade, a nice frosted cake with ice-cream and maybe another game of hide-and-go seek.