Monday, 21 December 2009

Second Innings

Yeah, it's my second winter in Boston. You can tell by the fact that I now speak Farenheit. It's such a relief that I can do that now. It's been excruciating to have to mentally convert from degrees F to degrees C, just to decide whether I should feel icy cold or totally frigid.

But I still resent the Farenheit scale for being inexplicably difficult. It was originally designed so that the temperature of the human body would be 96 degrees. Not 100 degrees, but 96. Then, in an "improvement", the scale was modified so that the difference between the melting and boiling points of water would be 180 degrees. Not 200 degrees, but 180. Oh, and of course the freezing point of water is 32 degrees. Not 30 degrees, but 32. It is a travesty of common sense that the scale still survives.

Clearly it takes more than 2 winters to learn to speak in ounces. That's partly because of the number of ounces that exist. There's the avoirdupois ounce, the troy ounce, and the Maria Theresa ounce, each of which is a different measure equivalent to between 28 and 31 grams. Then there's the Dutch ounce which, with characteristic Dutch obtuseness, is 100 grams. And then, just to really make things enjoyable, there's the fluid ounce which is not even a measure of weight. So when I go shopping for food, it's always a matter of conjecture as to whether I will buy enough to feed a family of 3 or an entire clan of Indians.

I miss the sheltered, metric world in which I grew up. It was a simpler time, when men were men, women were strangers, and it was a cold day if you could stand in the sun without breaking into a sweat.

Interestingly, according to the 2006 CIA World Factbook as quoted in Wikipedia, i.e. according to an obviously incontrovertible source, there are only 3 countries which do not use the metric system as their standard for measures. One of them is the US. The second is Liberia. The third is Myanmar.

Make of that what you will.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Punching My Card

It's almost obvious what makes a person begin a blog: an irresistible and sometimes ill-advised urge to express. Lately I've been more interested in what makes a blogger stop posting. I'd like to figure out what happened to me.

As "A regular reader" commented, I seem to be on an indefinite sabbatical. I do, don't I? Except that a sabbatical is meant to be time taken off for rest, or for learning. I'm afraid in the past few months I've rested little and learned less. And, much as it disappoints me to admit it, I've not thought anything interesting enough to motivate me to write.

It's a potent combination of circumstances. I've had too much to do at work, as much again to do at home, and too little inspiration in either place. That combination ensured I would stay away from my keyboard. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would enter such a phase sooner or later.

I can only hope it is a phase, and not a permanent condition. Keep watching this space, and you'll find out.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Back In Time

When you're trudging up a mountain at four thousand meters, when you take deep gasping breaths to suck in as much oxygen as you can find at high altitude, when the sun seems to bake the skin on your neck even as the wind chills the sweat running down your back, you need some intense motivation to keep on going.

Especially when you know that after crossing this first mountain pass you will break for lunch and then climb another pass later that same afternoon.

It's hard work. But no one said that hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu would be easy. It's a labour of four days and three nights. At times you wonder why you're putting yourself through this trial. You've trudged up and down mountainsides for tens of kilometers. You've put up with an abundance of mosquitoes and a lack of personal hygiene. You've experienced burning heat and freezing cold and all points in between.

It starts to feel worthwhile when you catch your breath and look around. The Andes rear up proudly in every direction. Up close they are covered in brush and spotted with the occasional llama. Further away they stand tall and black, glorious in their simplicity. And in the distance rise the benevolent snowy heights of La Veronica and Salcantay, looking down from six thousand meters.

And then you encounter remnants of the Inca empire and you realize you are making memories that will last a lifetime. Like the time when you explored a small Inca outpost shaped like a giant ceremonial knife. Or when you gazed in awe at a staircase plunging down for hundreds upon hundreds of meters. The excitement is building up now, and it comes to a crescendo on the final morning, as you crest the path that leads to the Sun Gate.

Then, as you top this final rise you are greeted with a sight that takes your breath away. For a few brief, shining minutes the dawning sun shines full onto a magical city in the near distance. It sits like a proud jewel on top of a smaller mountain below you. Then, with astonishing rapidity, the city is cloaked in a rising mist of clouds.

You're tired, you're exhilarated, you're hungry, you're wide-eyed, you want to stand up and jump, you want to sit down and stare, you look around at fellow hikers and grin your mutual congratulations, you stare straight ahead at the mountaintop jewel and pretend you're the only person on earth.

You take a picture. You eat a chocolate bar. You take a very deep breath.

This is why you came.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Chasing Condors

Just two more days to go! What? Two more days to what, you ask? Why, just two more days to go to my holiday to Peru!

I love vacations (duh!) and I love the anticipation of an upcoming vacation every bit as much as the holiday itself. So right now I am beside myself with excitement.

After an initial hiccup I got myself a visa. And now I am all set for a backpacking, mountain hiking, all-action adventure in the Andes.

Of course I'm looking forward to seeing Machu Picchu. I read about it as a child and ever since then I've dreamed of seeing it for myself. What I did not dream was that I would get there the old-fashioned way, hiking through wilderness to come to a lost city.

And right after Machu Picchu I'll get to go another dream destination, Nazca. I don't care what you think, I would really prefer to believe that the Nazca lines were made to serve as landing strips for alien spacecraft. I know that I need to survive a fourteen-hour overnight bus ride to get to Nazca, but even that cannot dampen my enthusiasm to see the lines.

I know it's odd to blog about a trip before I make it. I'm almost worried I might jinx myself. But only almost, because how can you possibly jinx a trip to a destination as exciting as Peru?

Friday, 7 August 2009

Maine Attractions

I am almost embarassed to admit that last weekend I went to Maine to see lighthouses. I know, that sounds as geeky as going to a Star Trek convention. Except that at a Star Trek convention you won't get to see something as pretty as this.

This gem is a hundred and thirty years old and is named the "Nubble" lighthouse, after the rocky little island it sits on. And it might just become the best-known lighthouse in the universe. In 1977 NASA launched the Voyager 2 sattelite. This satellite is now well on it's way out of solar system. It carries pictures and recorded audio on a gold-plated disc, in case it encounters intelligent aliens who are curious to know who sent it. And on that disc is a picture of the Nubble lighthouse.

Yes, I know, sharing that bit of information actually made me seem more geeky, not less. Well, never mind. I am hoist with my own petard, so I might as well go on.

On to Portland Head Light, for instance. This is another beauty, an hour's drive north of the Nubble. It was built in 1791. And when it was completed a certain Captain Greenleaf was appointed as its first keeper by George Washington, who at that time was himself just 2 years into his term as the first president of the United States. Capt. Greenleaf clearly won the approval of his employers, because 2 years later they decided to start paying him a salary.

His name is engraved at the top of a plaque that honours all the keepers who were in charge of the lighthouse for the first two hundred years of its existence. But when I looked at the plaque myself, the names that caught my eye were those of Joshua E. Strout (keeper from 1869 to 1904) and Joseph W. Strout (keeper from 1904 to 1928). A quick internet search confirmed that they were father and son. But there's more to their family story than that. Joshua's wife was his assistant keeper for a decade, and his mother was a housekeeper for a previous lighthouse keeper. In fact the combined service of the Strout family at various New England lighthouses was 128 years!

Imagine that: one family devoting over a hundred years to bringing sailors safely home. I wonder what it was like growing up in their home. Was working the lights just a trade to them? Or did they, as I would like to think they did, take their job very very seriously? Did they ever get bored? When Joshua had a cold and fever how did he drag himself upstairs to climb to the top of a 100-foot tower to do his job? And when he got to the top did he ever accidentally drop something and have to climb all the way down the stairs to pick it up?

We shall never know, but we can speculate.

Seriously, though, that's what really fascinates me: not the lighthouses that are still standing on the rocky coastline of New England, but the men and women who used to tend them and are now gone. If you squeeze your eyes half shut and stretch your imagination really hard then you can sort of picture them. I imagine them as earnest, weather-beaten men and women who liked the company of others but only in small doses. I wonder where you'd find them today.

Monday, 13 July 2009

It's A Sign!

I love it when random chance leads to a revelatory insight, as it did to me today.

I've never been on good terms with Monday mornings. Of late our relationship has gone from bad to worse. I try to undermine Monday by waking late. Monday retaliates by throwing me out of bed and forcing me to go out into the world and meet stupid people.

It makes me meet people like the consular officer in the Peruvian consulate. I went there today to get a visa for a trip that I'm going to make at the end of August. But first the officer wanted a certificate from a doctor to prove that as of today I do not have the H1N1 virus inside me. It did not matter to her that I still have six weeks after today to acquire it, store it in my body, and smuggle it into her country when I go there. And she's only interested in swine flu; she does not care if I have the bugs for bird flu, typhoid, or the bubonic plague.

Yes, I tried to reason with her politely. The more fool me.

In the end I was forced to walk back to my office without a visa, ranting silently and tearing my hear out imaginarily. I was way too pissed to notice anything around me until I saw a sign that made me stop dead. "Life is short", it said. "Be quick to love and make haste to be kind."

And here I was, frittering away my precious minutes in silent fury at a problem that I could do nothing about today, but which I had plenty of time to take care of later.

So I stopped looking inside myself at my bubbling pit of frustration and instead looked around. At the lovely church that stood behind the sign that had woken me up. At a cyclist who had dismounted and was now stretched out in the sun with a newspaper. At an engraving in the pavement in front of me that recorded the past winners of the Boston Marathon and their race times. At the few tourists who were out and about and who had been taking in all these sights with wide eyes while I had been ignoring everything.

And then for the rest of the day crazy stuff happened which made no sense at all, not even by Monday's abysmal standards. I won't go into detail because I can't; and even if I did, it would be insufferably boring. Suffice to say that I have seldom seen as much corporate irrationality packed into a single day as I did today. But I kept remembering that life is short, and I got the better of Monday.

(Until later in the eveining, when I went to the gym and my trainer kicked my ass. Effing Monday got it's revenge then.)

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Pass The Sausage And Wave The Flag

You have to admire a country that knows how to celebrate itself. This year, for the first time, I got to experience the 4th of July celebration. It was not the self-important display of national strength that I expected to see. Instead it was one massive party to which everyone was invited.

We chose not to go to the big celebration in Boston. Instead we went to the one in our suburban town. A mobile crane had been stationed in a school sports field as a makeshift flagpole. There were vans dispensing snacks and drinks. In the middle of perhaps two or three thousand people there was a stall selling lightsabers for children. (Jedi Knights would have to take their custom elsewhere.) At one end of the ground a music station was playing hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s for people to dance to. Then, at about 9pm, a half-hour firework display brought the festivities to a climactic end.

And that was it. No parades. No speeches. No displays of martial patriotism. No tragic/heroic re-enactments of a bitter struggle against the British army.

No jingoistic tributes to glorious nationhood.

Just one long, awesome family picnic.

It was almost the opposite of any Independence Day celebration I had ever seen before, in any country. And in an unexpected way, it was also the most inclusive celebration of nationhood imaginable. It even made me feel privileged to be a guest and a participant.

For so many years I have been baffled by the blithe sense of superiority that so many Americans seem to feel for their country. Now I begin to understand it just a little. When you celebrate your nation's independence as if it was a giant family event, I think it becomes very natural to take for granted that your country's way of life is the way that life should be. And that the rest of the world should aspire to that same way of life.

And if every day were a summer cookout followed by fireworks, maybe they should.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Turning The Other Cheek

Americans, if they do it, do it once. The Swiss seem to do it thrice. And a couple of days ago I may have accidentally offended a young French girl by only kissing her once on each cheek. But in my mind she's still the bright little eight-year-old I knew, not the fifteen-year-old debutante she's become. So I'm just relieved that when she turned her cheek to me in greeting I did not freeze in surprise with mouth agape.

I was in Geneva this week, and boy did it feel different from my last trip out of Boston. And that wasn't just because of the pressures of following the correct etiquette for social kissing.

You see, a week ago I was in Cincinnati. I spent four nights there and did not sleep well through a single one. I was kept up by the constant stream of police cars racing past my hotel all night with sirens blaring.

In Geneva, on the other hand, even rush hour traffic is barely audible. Perhaps that's because noone is in much of a hurry. Sasha, a Russian colleague who lives there, told me of her horror story when she gave her leather jacket to the cleaners and it took her six months and an argument to get it back. According to a porter in my hotel, a gentleman with an improbable South African accent, such sloth shows the influence of indolent French culture on Geneva. He clearly prefers Zurich where, according to him, the Germanic character of the people makes things run as smoothly as the legendary Swiss clockwork.

But Geneva's leisurely atmosphere suited me just fine on Monday evening. I took a stroll through the old town with a former boss. She pointed out the sights to me as we walked along cobbled streets lined with the red & white flags of the Swiss nation and the red & yellow standards of the Canton of Geneva.

Afterwards we had a dinner that featured three things I rarely get to enjoy in America: portions that are modest enough that you can really enjoy your food; dessert made of fruits; and exquisite after-dinner espresso.

For three days I drank coffee incessantly from very small cups. I snacked on croissants instead of cookies. I lunched on sliced meats, fruits and cheeses. And I wondered if I too should acquire some European flair and start wearing a snappy summer jacket when I go out.

Perhaps I will; but only after I first figure out if the Italians expect to be greeted with three kisses or four.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Travelling Salesman Blues

Flick. CNN. Flick. The Weather Channel. Flick. ESPN. Flick. Flick. Flick.

Thirty years ago Pink Floyd sang "I've got 13 channels of shit on TV to choose from". Times have changed since then. We now have more than 13 channels.

So this is the glamorous world of executive travel. Meetings all day. A couple of polite drinks in the evening. Then everyone goes home and you're the solitary out-of-towner.

It's still light outside and your feet are too itchy for room service. So you walk around the block looking for dinner. An overly bright gyro restaurant serves you just right. Then you decide to check out the famous local ice cream. It's all right, but you wish the taste of strawberries was a bit stronger. And now you can no longer put off going back to your solitary hotel room.

Flick. Cartoon Network. Flick. TNT. Flick. Flick.

It's no use. The television can't take your mind off the fact that you'd really rather be somewhere else. You switch it off and clip your fingernails instead. It's equally entertaining and vastly more productive.

Thank goodness for the coffee machine in your room. You're in the mood for a bitter brew.

This is the glamorous world of executive travel?

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes...

"In the morning I sat in my usual place. I giggled with my friends. We acted silly but we pretended to be very serious. That was funny.

One of the kids was sulking. I don't know why. Maybe he had a booboo. But we paid no attention to him, so he went away.

Then someone started a game. We took turns to say silly things that we did not really mean. It was a noisy game and it made the teacher angry.

So we became very quiet. We had break-time and we ate a snack.

Then we acted silly all over again."

"Your pre-school sounds a lot like my office."

Sunday, 26 April 2009


San Francisco has multiple personalities. Walking through its streets, you never know exactly what to expect,

There's no question that it is extremely pretty. Up in the hilly residential areas the houses all seem to have elegant bay windows and small, carefully tended front gardens. Strolling past them you never know when, as you turn a corner, you might be greeted by a breathtaking view of the city below and the bay beyond it. And down in the financial district, ultramodern office towers look right at home beside classic edifices that pre-date the Second World War.

It all seems very genteel, until you lower your eyes to ground level and see people begging for money. On a Saturday afternoon in downtown Market Street there was one on every block. Not all of them seemed destitute. There was one lady in particular who seemed rather healthy and cheerful as she sat cross-legged on the sidewalk. A passer-by even felt compelled to check with her that she was in fact begging, and only when she smiled and nodded did he hesitantly drop a few coins in the tin in front of her.

They seem to wear their green credentials with pride in SF, even when it makes them seem daft. At the Ti Couz restaurant, in the Mission area, they proudly inform customers that they will only serve you a glass of water if you specifically ask for it. That's their way of conserving water for drought-prone California.

But the pride that this city is really known for is gay, and it is on vivid display on Castro street. Oddly (or perhaps not) everyone there seems to be male. And unshaven. I don't know why, but designer stubble seems to be a badge of sexual orientation in these parts. The only clean-shaven men seemed to be the ones in martial arts uniforms, standing in a small group on one street corner. I had no idea what they were doing there.

And I did not stop to ask either, because I was eager to make my way to the corner of Haight and Ashbury. That was the epicenter of the hippie movement and psychedelic rock in the late 1960s. Janis Joplin lived there, as did the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. And so did many many more young men and women looking for peace, love and a good smoke. Today the area attracts an odd ensemble of tourists and emos. Sadly there were no throwbacks with tie-dyed shirts and flowers in their hair. I would like to think that the hippies did not grow old (or overdose) and die, that they just got haircuts and shirts with collars. If that's the case then I probably saw many of them sitting outside Starbucks cafes, of which there seems to be one next to every fire hydrant.

At about the time that Haight-Ashbury was experiencing its Summer of Love, a young American was starting work as a reporter for a newspaper in Freeport, Bahamas. He did not know it then, but in a matter of weeks he would cover the election of their first ever Prime Minister, a landmark in the journey of that nation to independence. Today, more than forty years later, that same American drives a taxi in San Francisco.

He drove us from Japantown to our hotel. He talked about Bahaman politics, and about teaching English in the Virgin Islands. As he talked, I looked out of the window and watched the people of San Francisco. They had come out to celebrate the weekend, the Sundance Film Festival, spring.

In a city of multiple personalities, it was the happy, flirtatious San Francisco that I saw. And I was glad that she was the one who had come out to wave at us.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Mo' Mash

There's a special joy that comes when an eagerly anticipated travel experience lives up to expectations. I felt that joy yesterday while driving up and down California 1, the Pacific Coast Highway.

The road hugged the edge of the ocean. Yellow and purple wildflowers lined the route. At one end there was a colony of hundreds of elephant seals lying on the beach. The drive was everything that I had hoped it would be, and a little bit more.

Back in San Jose, in the homes of Silicon Valley's elite, the conversation was less idyllic. I sipped on a friendly local wine and listened to my friends deplore interest rates, income taxes, and the bankruptcy (financial and political) of the government of California. Their voices were lowered out of consideration for the children asleep in a room next door. But their tone was unmistakeably worried at the recession of the American Dream.

Years ago they left small towns in India to spend their adult lives as professional nomads. Then California drew them in with a promise of professional challenge and financial reward. They still hear the promise but are wondering whether it's still trustworthy.

But that worry seems insubstantial today in the blaze of a bright spring afternoon. I'm at a playground, watching the children of the digital diaspora. Sunlight slants off their hair while they run around in circles and shriek in delight.

The fragrance of jasmine rides gently in the breeze, but the kids don't notice that; they're too busy living the childhood dream.

Monday, 20 April 2009

California Mashup

There are three wooden bears outside the front office of the Comfort Inn at Oakhurst. Another, much larger wooden bear stands guard over the parking lot. The basket of flowers in its hand softens its otherwise forbidding appearance. All this ursine pageantry is a salute to Yosemite National Park, an hour's drive away.

Inside the park, the real bears are up and about. Their winter hibernation is over, now that the weather has turned cheerfully hot.

This burst of warm weather has been good to the waterfalls and streams. We stood at the foot of Bridalveil Fall, and turned our faces up to catch the spray generated by water crashing down from a height of six hundred feet. (American) Indian legend says that doing this makes you lucky in marriage. It works.

Yosemite Falls is even bigger than Bridalveil, and far too violent for such gentle folklore. By the time the water hits the rocks at its feet, it has fallen fifteen hundred feet. The force of the spray and the gusting wind threaten to push you over into the rapids below.

But the waters in Yosemite Park are not all sound and fury. We ate lunch by a brisk but quiet snow-fed creek; next to us The Kid amused himself by throwing in pebbles to make splashes.

Back in Oakhurst the Jade Gazebo waits to feed Chinese food to hungry naturalists. There is no actual gazebo here. But the walls are painted a bilious green so the name is at least partly appropriate. I want to believe that the family who run the restaurant are descended from the Chinese labourers who came here to work for logging companies a hundred years ago.

Back then the lumber industry was booming. Today big agri-business has moved on to run orchards and vinyards. And now the manual labourers who work for them come from Mexico. There is a 50-mile stretch of farmland running west of Yosemite. And on the edge of this, in a place called Gilroy, hides the El Siete restaurant. Like Jade Gazebo, this is a family run restaurant in a working class neighbourhood. The food they serve is simple and irresistible. I ate more carne asada than I should have, and far more than I thought I could have.

Then I sat back, looked around, and was delighted by what I saw. Against one wall sat a device with one foot on either side of the Pacific Ocean, one that Chinese and Mexicans would both approve of. It was a karaoke machine with Spanish songs.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Watch Out For That Tin Man

Have you heard the joke about how many morons it takes to change a light bulb? Well, that's old news.

The real question is this: how many adjectives does it take to make a cup of coffee? The answer is 6. Or at least it is if your idea of getting coffee is to go into a Starbucks and ask for a cinnamon soy decaf grande non-fat extra-hot latte. By the time you execute all those instructions, it's not even coffee anymore, it's some kind of ghastly mongrel brew for the lactose intolerant.

At least all those adjectives are functional, even if only in way that is dysfunctional for the coffee aficionado. What really turns me off is when people add redundant verbs thinking that it makes them sound powerful. A few days ago I had to suppress a shudder as a colleague stridently told a room full of managers that "When (blank) does happen, you do have to follow the procedure". I might have gotten up and slapped her if I had not been stupefied by the ugliness of her usage.

I don't understand why some people get the idea that the more words they speak, the more important they become. Don't they get a clue from the glazed expressions of the people they are talking to? Does the movement of their mouth cut off blood circulation to their eyes, so they can no longer see that audience has dropped dead from listening fatigue?

What we need are millions of little robots to go walking around, slapping people who talk too much, and screaming at them to shut the f^7% up!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

:-) Four! :-(

My son is four years old today. Strictly speaking he turned four yesterday in Singapore. But this is not the time for technicalities.

No, it's a time to stop and stare in amazement at what he is. And what is he, now? Not a baby, that's long past. Not a toddler, that's long past too and it's time we admit it. He's ... a boy. And he's everything that that implies. Loud. Rumbunctious. Wrestles the dog. Wants to climb trees. If trees are not available, will jump up and down on the sofa until the floor shakes. And when he wants to cross the road, he will cross the road. So by golly, you'd best hold on to his hand and follow him.

No, that's not right. He's more than a boy, he's a few different boys rolled into one.

Let's see, there's Monkey Acrobat Boy. That's the one who careens down the stairs, and in one motion swings up onto my back, over my shoulder, and then head first down into my lap. Or at least that's what he does most of the time. Occasionally he overshoots, and with a practiced roll and tuck he recovers from the fall and runs around behind me to try again.

There's Avant Garde Fashion Boy. That's the one who follows the neighbour's daughters and wants pink shoes like the ones they have.

There's Bookworm Boy, who likes nothing better than to have his dad sit with him at night and read. Sometimes he wants me to read one of his books, and sometimes he's happy to let me read one of my own. As long as I'm reading something, he knows it's safe to sleep.

There's the one who loves company. The one who hates staying still for the camera. The one who thinks chicken, yogurt and watermelon make a balanced meal. The one who...

The one who turned four today and I still cannot fathom how it all happened so fast.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

This Won't Hurt A Bit

"It's pina colada!" must rank as one of the things you're least likely to hear when you're sitting in a dentist's chair. But truth is stranger than fiction and that is exactly what my dentist's assistant said to me a few hours ago. Sadly she was not referring the contents of a cocktail glass, but to an anaesthetic cream that she was about to administer.

I was not sure whether to be amused, gratified or just a little disturbed that a manufacturer of anaesthetic would choose that precise flavour. Why not peach, for instance, or simply a bland and reassuringly dental mint flavour? In the event it didn't matter because the cream tasted more of cloves than coconuts. So much for truth in advertising,

I was quite curious and apprehensive about what to expect in the dental surgery. Curious, because this would be my first dental procedure ever. This surprises some people; it certainly surprised my dentist. The first time she examined me, she kept muttering "no fillings!" in muted lower-case amazement.

Apprehensive, because I've been reared on a diet of popular culture which makes the dentist out to be the spiritual descendant of the medieval inquisitor. They both uses pointy metallic tools, so the resemblance is real. Though in defense of inquisitors I don't believe that they ever employed chirpy female assistants.

Dentists, on the other hand, seem to only employ people who are excessively cheerful. Or perhaps they become that way. Perhaps their effervescence is an occupational disease, triggered by over-exposure to laughing gas. And isn't that just the most wonderful name, laughing gas? As soon as I hear the words "laughing gas" I find myself giggling a little.

I didn't get any gas, though, only an anaesthetic injection. I'll admit I was a bit uncertain about that. The only previous time I'd had local anaethesia, a nurse said to me "Get ready, I'm going to give you an anaesthetic injection and it'll hurt". Then, as I pondered the irony of those words, she went ahead and proved them to be true. Of course on that occasion I did not have the benefit of numbing cream masquerading as a pina colada. I did have that this afternoon, and so I did not feel a thing.

Instead I listened with a strange sense of disconnection as the dentist, poked, prodded, jimmied and eventually ripped out my wisdom teeth. It's quite odd to be aware of something that should hurt like hell but you don't feel a thing.

Kudos to the dentist of course. If she's half as good at extracting confessions as she is at extracting teeth, she'll be my pick for Imperial Grand Inquisitor any day!

Sunday, 22 March 2009

What Have They Done?

It's a familiar scene in B-grade movies. A scientist, fuelled by ambition and besotted with his own genius, creates a terrifying new creature. The creature spins out of control and ravages through the world, destroying lives everywhere. Eventually humanity is saved from extinction but only after staggering devastation has been caused. The message is clear: do not be too arrogant in your knowledge, humans, lest you unleash a force that will bring you to ruin.

We watch these movies in wry amusement at their melodrama. And we're silently relieved that the deep fears that these movies play up to have so far proven unfounded.

Or have they?

Substitute "financial whiz-kid" for scientist, and replace "terrifying new creature" with "sub prime derivatives" and suddenly the story sounds uncomfortably familiar.

No loss of life has yet been blamed on the current situation in the world's financial markets. The only deaths reported until now have been those of corporations. The human impact so far has been limited (such an inappropriate word!) to loss of income and depletion of savings. That's bad to begin with, but it will probably get worse.

A loss of income always hits hardest on the poor, who have little saved up against hard times. They're the ones who will be forced to compromise on nutrition and health care. They're also the ones who will be hurt the most when governmental and non-governmental funding for health care programs comes under pressure. We'll probably never be able to say exactly how it happened, but I have the sad conviction that many lives will be hurt and some will be cut short by the financial shrapnel that will fly around the world over the next few years.

Somehow the media seem to have lost sight of this completely. Instead they've given in to the basest instinct for revenge. You can almost hear the shrill voices in newsrooms everywhere as journalists try to find the best way to sensationalize the news of bonus payments to AIG employees. Yes, there is something obscene about these payments, but will it really matter whether or not those bonuses get paid? The damage that's been done to the world's economy will not be undone. The genie is out of the bottle now, and we can do little more than watch grimly as governments and regulators struggle to undo the damage they failed to prevent.

No amount of punitive legislation will reverse the effects of the collapsing markets on the people who will be hit hardest and are also the most defenseless. I wonder if we will learn the really important lessons from this episode. There are multiple instances of economic crises that were triggered by investment bubbles in new markets and by "innovations" in financial markets. And yet governments seem to do precious little to ensure that these innovations are safe before they allow their widespread use. It seems to me that it's harder to get regulatory approval to sell a new toothpaste than it is to get permission to sell a new financial instrument.

I think it's time that governments started to take the sort of "safety first" attitude to regulating financial markets that they bring to health care products. Because if a financial product turns out to be toxic, the side effects can be deadly.

Maybe we'll get lucky, maybe this time the men and women in power will make decisions that in the future will protect us better . Time will tell. For now, we'll just have to struggle through the scary movie that we've found ourselves in.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Is It Here Yet?

It seems too good to be true. I've been standing outdoors in my shirt-sleeves for five minutes and I have no symptoms of hypothermia. Could it be that spring is finally here?

As if on cue, a pair of girls in jogging gear go past. Of course the sight of a jogger doesn't prove that it's warm outdoors. I've seen people out running in weather that I wouldn't bother to drive in. But the girls that I see in front of me right now look like casual exercisers, not the beady-eyed obsessives who run through blizzards and guzzle protein shakes.

I've seen enough. I must pull on my own running shoes and test the air.

And by golly, it is warm today! A couple of kids have set up a stall in their front lawn and under the watchful eyes of their parents they offer me a refreshing drink for 50 cents. Inflation has come a long way since I was their age; I can remember looking at comic book versions of this same scene where a glass of lemonade would set you back only 5 cents. In any case, it's too soon to stop so I politely decline their offer. And silently I wish them luck in this entrepreneurial venture. (Should I tell them that they could probably sell an organic version of their drink for a dollar?)

The neighbourhood is suddenly swarming with children on bicycles. They've been hibernating for the past six months and now the rising temperature has made them stir and step out squinting into the sunlight. They don't squint for long. With a whoop and shouted encouragements to each other they pedal jauntily away in a loud and harmless pack.

It's good to hear my feet softly pound on the ground again. It's good to work up a sweat with the sun on my back. It's good to huff and puff my way home and hungrily quaff a big glass of cold milk.

An hour later I'm in Harvard Square. A band plays blues in the background as I stretch out on the grass and catch up with a couple of friends. We're warm-blooded creatures, the three of us, and we tell each other excitedly how glad we are for this lovely day. We let the sunlight seep into us as we sip coffee. We exchange notes on what we've been up to over the past few months. My jacket lies next to me, unneeded.

But then dusk falls to remind us that we're still in New England and it's still only March. Our chatter slows as we stiffly pull ourselves to our feet, realizing that for some time now a chill had been soaking up through the ground we were sitting on.

No matter. We walk together a little distance, enjoying each other's company for just a bit longer. Spring is in our steps, whether or not it is in the air.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

There's One In Every Meeting

"That's terrific!!" is not an appropriate thing to say in all situations. It's a perfectly acceptable response to "I'm happy", or "I like tortillas"; but it sounds all wrong as a reply to "We're in a pile of trouble and we don't know how to get out."

You'd think that this would be obvious to any adult. And yet it's a law of human nature that in any business meeting involving eleven or more people, there will be one person who sets everyone else's teeth on edge with just this sort of bloody-minded cheerfulness.

Let me be clear, I like happy people and I like being surrounded by them. If I'm going to work with someone day in and day out then I want them to think positively. But you don't have to prove that you have a positive attitude by talking as if you've been breathing helium.

What follows is a reconstruction based on a true event. The true event was a 3-hour meeting involving me, a Senior Manager (SM), a More Senior Manager (MSM), a hysterically cheerful person whom I shall name Buttercup, and several others who did nothing interesting (SOWDNI).

SM: ...and that's our plan for the short term and the long term.
MSM: You guys have a problem that needs fixing in the next few days.
Buttercup: That's terrific!!
SM gives Buttercup a flat look and turns back to MSM: We appreciate that and we will get back to you with a solution soon.
MSM: You have to; if you don't fix the short term, there will be no long term.
SOWDNI nod at each other intelligently
SM, me and SOWDNI, all in chorus: We understand that, O More Senior Manager. We will work on this urgently and diligently.
Buttercup: That's terrific!!
It is now my turn to give Buttercup a flat look. I wonder whether she's on crack or merely deranged.

SM (trying to pretend that Buttercup does not exist): We'll have an update for you next week.
Buttercup (overcoming SM's attempt to pretend Buttercup is invisible and inaudible): This is so exciting!!
SM and MSM look at each other and nod. MSM pulls a lever and Buttercup falls through a trap door and into a nest of hungry crocodiles. As they close in, Buttercup looks up through the trapdoor at us with an ecstatic smile and yells in a high-pitched voice: Isn't this totally exciting?
The trap door closes over the sounds of crocodiles chewing.
Me: Now that's terrific!!

Author's note: no crocodiles were harmed in the making of this story.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Memories, Lessons And Friends

A few nights ago I was on a flight out from Mumbai to the US. As I tried to sleep, my mind drifted back to a day years ago when I had set out to live in Mumbai. I had two suitcases stuffed with clothes and books, and a motorcycle. With these in my possession, I got onto a train in Delhi and set out on a 16-hour journey to a new life.

When I left Mumbai some years later I had rather more by way of worldly possessions. But despite appearances, the most substantial things that I took away with me when I left that city were not the couple of dozen boxes that got loaded on an eastward bound freighter.

I took with me lessons learned over four years of building a new life in a new city. It does not matter what those lessons were. What matters is that they were the unique, non-replicable product of the experiences that I had in my time in Mumbai. I have vivid memories of those formative experiences. And even though I did not know it then, I can look back now and see how they connected to make me the person that I am.

The thing that amazes me about memory is that it records more than just facts and events. Think back to events in your life that you know to be significant. Chances are that you remember who was there, and what they did and just how it felt. Just thinking about those instances, mentally placing yourself back there, you can sometimes feel the exact same feelings that you did then. Memory is a time machine that each of us carries around in our heads.

I traveled in my time machine that night, cocooned in the dark of an airline cabin. I flickered through memories of “the night where we ….”, and “that crazy time when…” and even “that thing we did not think we would ever get through but we did.” And it struck me that many of those memories centered not on me, but on other people. There were a few people who showed up very often in those memories from Mumbai. They were the friends I made there.

And that’s what I really carried with me when I left Mumbai: memories, lessons and friends.

Since then there have been a few more instances where I moved to a new place to start a new life, and it’s always been the same. With each move my shipment became bigger. And with each move the biggest thing I carried with me was still memories, lessons and friends.

Some of the lessons have been unlearned and some of the friends have faded away. I guess it’s only the deepest truths and the most instinctive bonds that can withstand the twin tests of time and circumstance.

As I write this, my thoughts turn to you, my friend, and the journey that you are about to begin. You’re going to start a new life armed with some boxes, some lessons, some memories and some friendships. I hope your boxes arrive safely. I hope you find that the lessons were worth learning. I hope your memories stay fresh, and become a source of strength. And I hope our friendship is one of those that will pass the tests of time and circumstance.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

It's Time For The Gloves To Come Off

You can have too much of a good thing. Now that winter in Boston is entering its fifth month, I am convinced of that.

Did I say something recently about the cold, invigorating air? Sure it's invigorating. Just like dozens of small knives slicing into your face.

Winter is retreating, and it's downright ugly. The dense pile of snow that covered everything for months has now turned into treacherous slabs of ice. I risk a fracture with every step when I take the dog out for her walk. She, of course, continues to be blithely oblivious to her surroundings. She can only focus on one stimulus at a time, I think, and the scent of squirrel blots out the cold for her. I'm not so lucky. I am fully capable of noticing multiple stimuli, and so I feel the cold in every part of my body.

It's tiresome to wear layer on layer of clothes even to step outside for a few minutes. I long for summer, when outdoor wear will again mean t-shirts and shorts. I'm desperate to put away the fleece-lined gloves, the down-filled jacket, and the beanie hat. Especially the beanie hat. It's such a ghastly thing to wear. Beanies are great for women, they make them look willowy and graceful. But if you're male and you wear a beanie, all it does is make your head look round.

But it's not my fashion sense that's protesting, it's my common sense! This interminable winter is not what humans were designed to endure. I'm told I should be grateful that the Boston winter is bright and sunny, unlike the dreary grey that many other places experience. Well, that does not make me feel any better. Cold and bright is still cold, and Boston gives the word 'cold' a depth of bitter meaning that few other places can impart.

These were the thoughts that went through my mind this morning as I took the dog for a walk again. It was just a bit warmer than days past. The slanting rays of the rising sun glanced off the ice-plated ground, giving it a faint gold sheen. Once again I was arrested by how pretty it all looked.

Then, without warning, I started sliding slowly and helplessly down the sloping, iced-over path. And in that moment I knew a truth that would not be denied. Winter sucks!!!

Friday, 20 February 2009

Look Before You Hit The "Start" Button

Florida is a lucky state. The balmy weather here casts all things in a favourable light. Under a warm breeze, even the certifiably insane seems pleasantly eccentric.

And eccentricity is certainly abundant here. You can find it at the local laundromat. The other day I was about to toss some clothes into the dryer when I happened to read the instructions on the front of the machine:
Step 1: Open door
Step 2: Check for small children and animals
Step 3: Set temperature


Check for small children and animals? In a tumble dryer!?!?!?!?

But perhaps that instruction does make sense. If you’re a small child trying to escape from an alligator, the dryer might well be the safest place to crawl into.

And if you are a small child in Florida, the idea that you might need to hide from an alligator is not very far-fetched. The biggest alligator on record in the state was a 24-foot monster, and it was found inside a lady’s kitchen. The authorities suspected that the lady had been feeding the reptile, so they put the animal down.

And you know what, I am fully prepared to believe that someone would be nutty enough to feed a 24-foot alligator as if it was just another fluffy household pet, like a guinea pig or a bunny rabbit. Earlier this week we were at the Everglades national park, when a fellow tourist decided to stroke a passing alligator on its tail. As if that’s not crazy enough, our tram driver told us of an incident when someone actually placed their baby on top of an alligator to pose for a photograph!

Now it is true that after a couple of hours in the national park you've seen so many alligators that they seem as commonplace as houseflies. If, that is, houseflies were armed with two feet of vicious teeth running down either side of their jaw. Alligators are said to have brains the size of a walnut, but even they know better than to leave their young to the mercies of their own kind.

But that’s Florida for you. Warm. Relaxed. Peopled with alligator-stroking weirdos who continually misplace children and small dogs inside household appliances.

And you know what? I could live here. If only they didn't have those pesky hurricanes...

Monday, 16 February 2009

Sun, Palms, and a Dash of Triple Sec

It wasn't exactly love at first sight. It took me an entire half-hour before I was smitten by Miami Beach.

It began in the morning when I looked out of my hotel window at acres of sand fronting endless miles of rich blue Atlantic Ocean. Soon afterwards I went down to get some coffee and breakfast pastries. I had walked a hundred yards or so when I abruptly realized that I was walking twice as fast as anyone else. I slowed down, looked around, and with a contented sigh I let myself slip back into island culture.

And make no mistake, Miami Beach is an island culture. It has the veneer of designer labels, plastic surgery and overdone suntans. But it also has the lilting sounds of Spanish, English and French, all spoken in Caribbean accents. We heard them all in good measure when we went for a stroll on the promenade at South Beach. And we obeyed their mingled subliminal message to relax, relax, relax.

Yes, we were at the South Beach, known for its bods and it's low-carb rival to the Atkins Diet. Sure enough, we saw plenty of bulked-up men with bare chests as they peacock-stepped with their very tiny dogs. It was just a little less camp than watching The Birdcage, but it was every bit as delightful. There were enough and more bikini-babes as well, and my wife and I soon tired of ticking off different kinds of plastic surgery.

We were rapidly catching the infectious feel of the place. How could we resist, when we were walking in front of the most beautiful buildings I've seen in America? We walked past one magnificent Art Deco building after another. Hints of Aztec motifs mingled with a Spanish aesthetic to create buildings with a delicate but casual grace. Palm trees set off their pastel colours to perfection. Looking at those buildings, it was only too easy to imagine them peopled with smiling, unselfconsciously stylish men and women who knew that life is meant to be savoured in the company of friends.

As we continued to explore it became clear that not all the dogs here are Hollywood miniatures. On the contrary, those not owned by the Liberace set seem genetically enhanced. I saw a Bassett Hound the size of a pig, and a Golden retriever as big as a little pony. I did not see any felines, but I bet a Miamese cat could eat a Siamese cat for breakfast and still have room left over for some empanadas and croquetas.

Perhaps the thing that I liked most of all, the thing that made me feel most at home, was the sound of music everywhere. From the cars cruising past broadcasting urban rhythms in English and Spanish, to the street musicians trying to parlay their talent into tips. This is a city that feels like it never forgot to disco. The songs of Donna Summer and Miami Sound Machine mingle on the streets. And at lunch we had to wait for several minutes for the waiter to take our credit card because he was busy dancing with one of the waitresses. We didn't mind; the Margharitas were exquisite.

Friday, 13 February 2009


I know, I've been very silent. I was on a 2-week business trip that ended today. As with all such trips, the days immediately preceding it were manic, to put it mildly. So for the past month there's been little time to think clear thoughts, let alone write them down.

But now I am back home. Mentally I roll the word 'home' over my tongue a few times. After 6 months of living here it seems that Boston has finally become home, if only for a time.

I felt it the moment I got off the plane. The smell of burnt Colombian coffee and freshly fried hash browns drifted through the corridors. I guess that is the smell of mornings now.

I stepped outside to get a taxi; this time I did not reel back at the exposure to the winter air, even though I had just returned from balmy Mumbai. There was a time when I would have said that my face was blasted by a gust of dry, freezing air. But now I would tell you that I felt invigorated by the sharp, robust breeze. Cold, but invigorated nontheless!

The grimy grey snowbanks by the roadsides seemed natural now, not regrettably ugly. And it was only natural that the taxi driver would have a vague African accent.

It's nice to sit on the staircase landing in my drawing room and munch on warm buttered toast. It's nice to look out at the sun shining on the deck outside, and to imagine how nice it will be sit out there again in a couple of months.

Most of all, it's nice to come home to the waiting hugs.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Say What?

I used to be fascinated by antagonyms because I thought they were extremely rare. An antagonym, in case you're wondering, is a word with 2 meanings which are the opposite of each other.

(An example is "cleave" which can mean "stick to" or it can mean "split apart". And in in case you were not wondering what an antagonym is then you either lack a sense of curiosity or you should be teaching post-graduate classes on the English language.)

I have now found that antagonyms are remarkably commonplace in the corporate world. I collected several in the course of a single seven-hour meeting on Monday.

"I may be wrong, but..."
While this seems to be a humble admission by the speaker that he is not omniscient, what it really means is this: "You would like to think that I am wrong. But I'm right. I am more right than you will ever be. I am more right than you ever dreamed of being. In fact I am so very right that I make Mussolini look like Marx. You on the other hand, are wrong. Live with it. Or not. I don't care, because you're wrong and you don't matter."

"I'm not saying this is wrong but..."
"... that is only because I have chosen to magnanimously care about your feelings for the next seven seconds. And then, after this decent pause, I will proceed to tell you in excruciating detail that you are more wrong than Britney Spears covering a Joan Jett song. The extent of your wrongness is an embarassment to you, your colleagues, your nation, and the entire ecosystem in which you occupy an insignificant yet excessive space."

"I don't know how I feel about that".
"I know exactly how I feel like that. I feel a nauseating mixture of contempt, impatience, profound dissatisfaction, and acid reflux. And by the way, you're an idiot".

"Thanks for your help."
"No thanks to your help."

"Have a good day."

Antagonym's are lovely, but like a spicy meal they are full of sensory stimulation and are best followed by the soothing dessert of a tortured metaphor. Luckily for me, my marathon meeting on Monday ended with an all-time classic. And I quote...

"I'm really happy that we got on the train that got us here, because now we know where our bus is going."