Friday, 5 June 2020

The questions we must ask - a letter to my kids circa 2020

Why do old men run for President, asked my daughter. 
My innocent one, don't you know?
That's just one question of many.  
Why do white men rule?
Why do black men die?
Why do baby girls get killed in the womb,
or raped and murdered outside?
Why do the poor have to be poor,
when the rich are so very rich?
You know some of your schoolmates have to have free meals.
Why do we treat animals, even worse than we do our own kind?

I hope we raised our children to ask these questions, 
relentlessly, doggedly, repeatedly; 
I hope you are braver than we are.
More empathetic, less apathetic. 
I hope you care deeply and feel strongly.
I hope you protest, dissent, debate and oppose, 
but also give, comfort, agree and respect.

I hope you always feel that you did your best, 
but that you could have done just a little bit more.
I'd rather you sometimes felt honest incertitude in your beliefs,  
than constant unwavering assurance in your rightness. 
I hope you compromise, question, contemplate and endorse; 
but also thwart, confront, negotiate and defy. 

Does it feel like I'm asking too much?
I know you will do all these things, and more;  
your thoughtful questions tell me so.
Our rules and laws and conventions, they
circumscribe us, but your desires and thoughts will be limitless.
When I get depressed (as I often do), that in the same week 
that we launch astronauts into space,  
we descend into hateful depths of racism and bigotry,   
I am comforted by what you will do.
Only in optimism do we move forward. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

The Covid life

I never thought that the word 'Pandemic' would make it into the everyday lexicon. March madness, now I know what that means! Life has changed drastically in a few weeks, yet I find myself experiencing a certain guilty pleasure in this new normal. Yes, it's great not to have to do the school/bus stop pickups and drops, the shuttling to various classes (only twice a week, but we are lazy like that!). But more importantly, being a tad unsocial and retiring by nature, none of us misses the social activities. I like not having to go into DC for meetings. S enjoys not having to travel on work. 
We aren't being asked for much at this time, unlike many many others who cannot afford to stay home like us. 
Our school district had a very rocky time, transitioning to online learning. First, they took 4 weeks just to train the teachers. I would have thought that someone in the administration would spend that time stress-testing the software platform to make sure it can handle 189,000 students plus teachers, but apparently not. The first day everyone logged on, the system crashed. Ditto the second third days. Ditto several weeks! Parents were mad, poor teachers were stressed, and the kids were having a gala time :) 
I realized that our school district is one of the best and richest in the nation, and can afford to give laptops to everyone, but simply had not planned on supporting synchronous OR asynchronous online schooling. Several weeks behind many other proactive school districts, and with just over a month left before the summer vacation begins, they have finally got their act together and some learning is happening for the kids. High school and elementary school are on different schedules so Ads & Y have been waking up, coming down for meals, and finishing up schoolwork at different times (the schedules also change based on the day of the week). At any given point during the day, 3 bedroom doors are shut with everyone in front of their screen while I stay downstairs with my screen :) 
I have been working with the kids on life skills training. Ads has been trained in doing a full laundry cycle (including sorting, drying and folding). He finally knows the difference between kitchen towels and bathroom hand towels :) though he still seems confused about which underwear belongs to whom :)) He knows how to load and unload the dishwasher, hates doing dishes by hand and has been doing some basic veg chopping as well. But the biggest skill he learnt was how to clean the bathroom, and he does a pretty good job of it.
I have dusted off my singing chops and found a lovely app called Starmaker studios that allows me to record high-quality songs with backing tracks. By high-quality, I refer to the app and not necessarily to my singing :) It's been a lot of fun immersing myself into something that was a big part of my life until the kids came along. It feels strange now that I waited so long to resuscitate this hobby, but I guess there is a time for everything. 
I don't suppose anyone knows what the future will bring, whether we are going to have another wave in the fall, or whether things will settle down, even whether schools will finally reopen come late August. For now, we are truly living day to day and in the moment!

Friday, 10 April 2020

In crisis, opportunity

It was Winston Churchill who first said: "Never let a good crisis go to waste". I have been thinking about this as families, workplaces and communities worldwide have been thrown into an unprecedented situation, fraught with anxiety, grief and confusion. 
At work, my non-profit client is grappling with a precipitous revenue loss as their community programs shut down or scaled-down and uncertainty whether funders will continue to support them. Organizations I volunteer with also face myriad challenges, such as unpreparedness to transition to the virtual world, staff members falling sick or unable to be productive when saddled with caregiving responsibilities, etc.  
Finally, schools in my part of the world are shut until late August, leaving kids with patchy online learning tools and little direction on how to structure their day.
Taking a leaf from Churchill’s book, we have begun to introspect on how to make the most of this crisis (and the 6 months that my kids will stay home!). We are discovering that this pandemic has made some attributes even more critical and relevant now. 

Open & honest communication: Talking to the kids about what they have seen and felt, some of their observations hit the nail on the head. 
People panic easily (my daughter, learning of the long lines at grocery stores and stock outages).
The world is more connected than we realize and the economy is so fragile to buckle under in this situation. 
People don’t seem to listen to scientists and their advice.
I don’t understand why is it so difficult for schools here to teach online when we have been on Blackboard and Google Classroom for years.  
Aren’t we buying too many groceries? (my son managed to shame me into realizing we consume too much!)

We tend to let, even encourage, our children to live in a bubble that cocoons and protects. But talking to them candidly about what this crisis means, for us personally and for the world, is critical. We even talked through, very frankly, about the worst-case scenarios - my husband being laid off, having to pack up and leave the US, one of us falling sick and having to be hospitalized. Playing through these scenarios, far from being anxiety-inducing, has only equipped all of us to be more prepared for whatever the future may bring. 

Non-linear thinking: Talking about the daily developments offered us a chance to recognize and reinforce that the only constant is change. The world can and did change dramatically in a week or a few days as the disease grew exponentially. Everyone had to adjust very rapidly to a brand new normal (and is still adjusting). We spoke about how governments and policymakers have tough decisions to make in an uncertain volatile situation. How to reconcile what the epidemiologists were advising, to the economic and social impact of those decisions. Ergo, the importance of non-linear thinking. With 2 kids as alike as chalk and cheese; one, an ultra-logical being who thrives on structured thinking and evidence-based reasoning, and another who is messy, creative and thrives in ambiguous fluid situations, it was an important lesson even though we struggled to explain it in simple terms to my 11-year-old. 

Resilience: Drawing on inner reserves of strength to cope with the frustration and disappointment of a sudden school closure and all activities; spring break and a coveted holiday being cancelled; not being able to meet their friends in person; being confined to the house; losing the comfort of a daily routine; and no idea of when the ordeal would end, was and continues to be a lesson in resilience. Finding solutions to each of these problems, whether it is to chalk out a daily routine, use video chats to meet with friends, or move learning to Khan Academy, moved the kids from depression-mode to solution and action-mode. Also, there will never be a better time to start a daily yoga and meditation practice. We have been having a daily meditation practice for our kids for the last few months and I am sure it is helping to calm some fears and quell some anxiety. 
Circumstances may change, the only thing we have in control is our reaction to it. 

Gratitude and Compassion: Now, more than ever, it is important to be grateful for what we have - a safe home with lots of books and games, the ability to stay closeted inside and continue to work, the internet, etc etc. We are part of a small minority that still has these luxuries. We had lots of video chats with family and friends and felt more connected to those whom we had not been in touch for a long time. 
When work becomes visible, it can be shared. All of a sudden, the kids have had to pitch in and do laundry, load and unload the dishwasher, clean and put away the groceries, vacuum and mop the house and even clean their bathrooms. Helping each other has moved from being a nice-to-do to a must-do
Our daily family gratitude practice has focused heavily on all the things we take for granted, that many others in the world struggle to provide for themselves and their families. We spoke candidly about the possibility of the deaths, job losses, recession, and the current and future social impact on communities worldwide. When I wanted to donate to some NGOs that were helping the COVID-affected, I asked the kids if they would consider chipping in with some of their pocket money. Giving can never start too early! 

Authenticity: Our kids are watching us (yikes!) 24-7 now. No longer do we have the luxury to put on our "good parent" demeanour before they come back home. They see our annoyance, irritability and frustration. As tough as parenting usually is, it just became more difficult! But perhaps our vulnerability shining through is not such a bad thing. After all, this crisis has exposed as nothing else has, our collective vulnerability. It is bringing out the best and the worst in people. Life is messy. People are messy. This is the truth. Our kids will get it.

If we do one thing now, let’s challenge our kids to think differently, try to make sense of the world (even when we are ourselves befuddled!), be grateful and compassionate, strong and calm, agile and centred. This crisis won’t be the last one they live through, but it’s possible we help them pick up some vital tools to help them cope with a world that will never be the same again. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

This is 14

This is 14.
Long long legs and arms.
Size 10 feet.
Feet that need new shoes every few months.
Smelly feet.
Smelly socks.
Grunts and mumbles masquerade as conversation.
(He used to be more verbal when he was 2!)
Big hands.
Clammy hands.
Taller than me.
Taller than dad.
Doesn't want you to enter his room.
Or clean up his room.
Does laundry.
Can chop vegetables.
Doesn't know how to open a milk carton.
Doesn't listen.
Hears every word when parents are whispering about him.
(Damn that Vulcan hearing- for fans of Big Bang Theory!)
Armpit hair.
Face fuzz.
Hates it when you hug him (you give too many hugs!)
Needs that big hug from you.

This is 14.
Selfish. Careless. 
You lie on the couch in high fever and he steers clear of you.
He doesn't need you. 
When he's hungry (always!)
When he needs new pants (every month)
When he needs a ride 
When he has a small corn and my goodness, the pain that he's in!

This is 14.
He wants to know if you've saved enough money for his college.
He has trust issues.
He is aghast when you threaten to join the PTSA.
14 doesn't tell you the names of his friends.
Now you are clueless.
You are uncool 
and embarrassing. 

This is 14.
Heartbreakingly handsome.
You wonder how many of his schoolmates have a crush on him.
You'll never know.
Your deepest desire is to be a fly on the wall as he goes about his school day.
He lounges on the couch.
For a second you mistake him for his dad.
What is going on in that brain? 
Neurons firing, hormones raging.

This is 14.
More bewitching and confusing than you ever thought it would be.
The awkward entanglement of boyhood and manhood. 
Those terrible twos and threes?
You laugh at how hard you thought it was then.
When you thought they were testing your patience
and your strength.
Those were just little hurdles.
Mere prep
for the teenage years.  
In 4 years he will leave this roof. 
You swat that thought away.

For now,
It is enough
That he walks a few steps ahead or behind (never with you)
That you can watch him while he sleeps
That you can still impress him with your cooking 
That he will bike to the nearest Dunkin Donuts
and buy you a doughnut for Mother's day
and eat it all by himself 
That he will draw 3 balloons, write Happy Birthday, and call it a card
This is 14.
This is beautiful. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Goals for 2020 and 2019 report card

Since last year, our family has had a formal goal-setting exercise every December, for the New Year. My goals last year were fairly ambitious, and a few weeks ago, we had a family meeting to revisit how each of us has done, and what our goals for 2020 should be. 
My own performance has been patchy. Of course, I blame myself for setting the wrong goals, not for underachieving on them :) How did I do?

Report Card 2019
Exercise everyday - Yes yes and it, with my yoga and walking and now swimming, I feel good about this. Feeling chuffed at having kept up the fitness regimen, even during the winter, anything above 1-2 deg C and I am outside. 

Meditate everyday - 20-30 minutes of deep breathing exercises and just sitting still. This has been a daily practice and now looking into doing a meditation retreat when I go to India next. 

Read a Tamil book - So hard! I'm halfway through a novel, hope to finish in a few months. Yes, that's the speed I am at :( 

Learn some Spanish - This has been difficult. I simply haven't been motivated enough. Part of the problem is that Ads speaks reasonably well now so when we travel in Latin America, I just fall back on his ability instead of trying to navigate on my own. I've dropped this from my list for 2020. Maybe later!

Craft a family mission statement - Hmm...we have discussed this and none of us is convinced we even need this :) So dropped. 

Learn ice-skating - Big fail. 'Nuf said. Dropped! Life is too short to learn stuff that is completely useless :) 

Learn swimming - Yes! In adult swim classes now. Progress being made. This is actually going on my bucket list (separate post)

Teach S how to cook - Lots of progress on this because I have a motivated student. He can make a mean omelette, dal, and with the instant pot curries have become super-easy. He rolls out parathas and rotis very well, and dosai has been mastered. 

Teach Ads to iron clothes, cut veg, make Maggi - So far we have been doing a lot of veg chopping. I taught him how to use the washer and iron. Practice practice practice :) 

Get on a nonprofit Board - Yes! Joined one Board, and talking to a couple of others.

Goals 2020
Learn swimming 
Teach Ads some life skills - same as last year 
Join another nonprofit Board
Work on Ads' college plan 
Paint more - Plan is to have 3 more artworks complete by the end of 2020
Write more - On this blog, and Linkedin/Medium 

Fairly confident about these goals. Lessened my ambition a bit this year, so they seem very do-able. 

Monday, 24 February 2020

Encounters on the walking trail

Each of the four seasons in Virginia have their distinct charm. The winter season is characterised by low (sometimes freezing) temperatures, snow/sleet, and moody skies. However, the lack of leaves and undergrowth provides excellent opportunities for viewing various varieties of humans, even from a distance and while remaining unobserved ourselves.
These are some of the species that one may commonly encounter while walking on the trails of Northern Virginia. 

The Cryophobic: This species is characterised by bulky layers of winter gear, rendering facial recognition almost impossible. This species receives the weather memos out of phase with the general population. In autumn, they retreat into their winter camouflage and immediately start hibernating. Hence they are rarely seen venturing out except to forage for food and escort their young ones. They receive the news of the onset of spring a little late too. While the rest of the population exhibits field marks of the spring season, these guys are still to be found huddling in their fur-lined boots and winter coats. Their habitat is characterized by high thermostat settings, often in the region of 75+ Fahrenheit. 

The Fast and The Furious (also known as the Fit and the Fabulous): This hardy species is easily discoverable outdoors in all weather conditions. Fleet of foot, they do not hibernate during the winter, preferring to obtain all their warmth from strenuous exercise. Field marks include a lack of appropriate outerwear and even basic clothing. The male is often found running bare-chested while the female prefers sports bras and running shorts. They move quickly and silently, and often the only warning of their presence will be seconds before you spot them, as they rush past with a terse "Excuse me".  

The Social Animal: This species hunts in packs, and have a special affinity for their canine friends. Like the Fast and the Furious, they are also weather-independent due to the need for their canine friends to take a daily constitutional and poop. One need not fear this type, as they are very friendly and social, often greeting others with a cheery "Hey there!" 

The Wildlife Lover: This species is characterized by their gait, which is slow and measured. Often accompanied by a canine, they stop frequently to peer at the trees and plants, and discover birds, rodents and other small animals. They prefer peace and quiet,  dislike loud noises and will fix you with a baleful stare if you walk past talking loudly to your mother in Chennai.

The Shrinking Violet: The Shrinking Violet is not an endemic species, but has been imported from various parts of the world, particularly Eastern and Southern Asia. This species has been found to flourish particularly well in the mild Virginia climate, however it is still fighting for its place under the sun. Consequently, they are often retiring and shy, and prefer not to make eye contact with other humans (though some exhibit more social tendencies). There is some intersection between the behaviour of this species, and that of the Cryophobic.  

Observation of the many types of human inhabiting the trails can be a very enjoyable and rewarding exercise!

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The Confidence Gap

Last year, Y's school asked for kids in her grade to self-nominate if they would like to stand for election to a few school office-bearer posts. Initially, Y showed some interest but as she got to know more about what it involved, she rapidly backed off. I tried to encourage her to stand, remembering full well my attempts at such electioneering in my school days, most of which led to thumping defeats! But all my encouragement seemed to make it worse. She simply did not want to make posters, stick them up all over the school, give speeches and generally ask for votes. I let it go, thinking that she may be more confident after a year. After all, it was her first year in a strange environment. 

Of late, I have noticed a worrying insecurity that lurks beneath her surface confidence. She will show us our assignments but balk at showing them to her brother. Ads is notoriously critical (those Virgo genes!) and does not mince words when offering feedback (he is also very mature about accepting feedback about himself or his work, recognizing that the comments are not personal but designed to help him improve). Yuks, unfortunately, does not have the maturity to accept constructive (if blunt) feedback in an unemotional, impersonal way.

Often, showing us something she has made, she will preemptively announce "It's very bad, I know" and rush off into another room while we examine her work. A few days ago, she showed me a school assignment and while I was reading it, she was crouched under the bed as though I was going to pronounce a sentence on her!

Every time, I tell her the same thing. It's your work. If you put in your best effort, it's good. Don't aim for perfection. If it is flawed, or imperfect, you need to love and respect it anyway because it's yours. Don't allow other's comments to hurt so much. Do take feedback and examine it carefully to see if it has merit, then use that feedback to improve. But ultimately, be your own judge and judge yourself kindly. 

Reading articles and books harping on this theme does not help. As much as I want my daughter to grow up to be a confident woman, I understand that modern pressures will always pull her down unless she learns how to recognize the insidious nature of her own mental blocks, and knows how to cope with them and ultimately surmount them. My alter ego, of course, is laughing heartily and sarcastically at my attempts to inject confidence into my kid when I myself am subject to imposter syndrome, performance anxiety and sundry other imaginary syndromes, disorders and maladies :))

So, still working on how to tackle this. One more parenthood challenge! Will it never end??