Monthly Archives: January 2010

When reality takes a backseat….

Found this in my e-mail archives. I’d written this opinion piece nine years ago — while I was still in India — and it still rings true, especially because of the rise of social media and our need to be acknowledged online by a mix of real-life friends and complete strangers. We’re more involved than ever in each others’ online lives (that are, most times, reports of our not-so-remarkable real lives), but how many of us are taking that online connection further to truly form lasting friendships … the kinds where you meet face to face, share a cup of coffee, and give each other a hug?

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It’s been 30 years now that e-mailing came into existence but it caught on only about 7 to 8 years ago in India. Now it has become a necessity. I am not getting into statistics, but most of us depend on this means of communication more than ever before. And for obvious reasons.

Another revolution that has swept across our country is chatting. People spend endless nights yakking about miscellaneous stuff with all and sundry on Yahoo, MSN, Rediff Bol, Indiatimes, ICQ and countless other messengers. And, of course, in the surreptitious chat rooms. Crossing territorial, regional and continental barriers was never easier. Since it’s such a fad, I tried being a part of the brigade that forms the statistical report for many surveys. I chatted last night.

I have Yahoo and MSN messengers and I use them to keep in touch with friends and family across the world. But entering a chat room and talking to complete strangers is, well, a different ball game altogether. Since all my married friends were attending a “couples only” party and there really was nothing worthwhile being aired on the idiot box, I decided to experiment. And boy, what a learning experience it was!

Wanna cyber?

The first rule I understood upon entering the chat room was never ever to use a girl’s name as your chat ID. Oh! Believe me that’s the worst thing you can do to yourself. If, on the other hand, it’s been male attention you have been craving for in real life, nothing could be better! Out of the 25 odd people in that particular chat room, 18 of them pounced upon me the moment I entered. Daunting as it was, I tried being decent, courteous and extremely gracious by providing them with my a/s/l. And when “a” equals 23, “s” stands for female and “l” is Delhi you are nothing less than a goddess! I don’t really know what I had expected out of those faceless strangers, but I do know that I received a lot of unanticipated and unwanted talk. The most common query of course, was “Wanna cyber?” I refused politely to the first few invitations but things got nasty after that. Never in my life have I heard such profanities being thrown left, right and centre.

When online life is more exciting

I am no prude, but I have never been so shocked. It’s amazing how people, who perhaps in real life would never use such abusive language, feel so uninhibited about such unabashed rudeness. You can’t even imagine what such a verbal assault can do to one’s psyche. And it’s not the language as much as it is the attitude! The good part, however, was that I could exercise my right to block such messages.

Not one to be cowed down so easily, I tried striking a conversation on the main platform. And what started on a flirtatious note caught the attention of some of the intellectual variety scouting around for companionship. It was indeed mentally invigorating to enter into a debate on arranged versus love marriages. And surprisingly enough I realised that my initial impressions were perhaps too biased against the entire populace that elects to air their views using this medium. Some people got bored and left the conversation in between, newcomers to the room chipped in with their opinions while the rest just served to increase the count of people on my ignore list. But it was four males who very coherently kept up the discussion till the wee hours of the morning.

Filling a void

And it made me wonder why these guys were whiling away their time with strangers over a wire when they could actually be spending it with real people! Why was it that they, and many others like them, were able to speak their hearts out on the Net but found it awkward to do so with existing friends? Where was the hitch? And all these questions made me think how detached we are becoming from our real lives … and from the real people surrounding us.

We don’t have time to exchange a decent conversation with our parents but we sit till 4 in the morning talking to people we’ll probably never meet. We don’t share our sentiments with friends we have known since school days, but we overflow with emotions in crowded chat rooms. We don’t have time to read or cultivate new skills but we have enough time and money to kill on spewing profanities on those we don’t even know! Why are we moving away from secure territory into unforeseen lands? Is it the attraction of the unknown? Is it the allure of promised happiness? Is it escapism? Or is it that our generation just does not believe in putting its time and effort in nourishing existing relationships?

Whether we blame our not-being-able-to-talk-to-our-parents on the convenient “generation gap”; or declare that our lives are too hectic to spare some time for get togethers with friends; or say that it is relaxing to be our uninhibited selves in the ignoramus chat dominion, I think there’s something missing in our lives. It is subjective for each individual in those chat rooms but that elusive “something” is what they all seem to be running after.

Taking stock of reality

My four hours of chatting experience in one night revealed a lot to me. I went there with a desire to know what it was all about, but for so many others out there it is a part of their daily regimen. They log in every day hoping to find that missing link. I realised that even in that crowded room each person was lonely. Everyone wanted someone to talk to.  There was such a crazy need to be noticed. To somehow attract attention. It was poignant to see strangers turning to each other for solace from the harsh realities of life. And as much as some of you might find the entire experience to be an exciting, fun thing to do, I was saddened. Ironically enough the room was called “Friends Forever”.

I agree that the daily grind is monotonous. I accept that making new friends helps us grow. But this entire episode made me understand one thing: A virtual relationship might provide the answer to your despairing needs but nothing can beat a real hug from a real friend.

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This, dat…whateva!

The last couple of weeks I have been busy updating the university style guide — you know the readily available, easily accessible booklet that serves as a “dictionary, a spelling reference, and a guide for basic grammar and punctuation”? A handy journal that helps you understand the difference between its and it’s, use and utilize, their and there. The bible for communication professionals across campus that helps them decipher when to capitalize Professor and when not. Every university has their own style guide, most basing it on either AP Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style and I frequently see posts on the College and University Editors’ listserv on the use of serial commas, italics or quotations, use of hyphens, etc. It’s like being in this little world of people who are obsessed — anal — about using the English language right.

But outside of that little world is another one — the real world. Where I see instances like these:

(They really are baked “daily.” Courtesy of the “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks)

Probably ignorant mistakes, but they make me cringe nevertheless.

And when I get e-mails from cousins in India stating “i rememba all da tymz” and “da best part ov all z u know wat u cant even think dat u soo popular in my family n friends,” I wonder why I, and a handful of other like me, fuss over spellings, grammar, and punctuation at all. Why do we even give a damn?

I understand that in an age of texting and 140-character limits to posting your thoughts, spelling needs to be modified … it’s the need of the medium. But in an e-mail? In a resume? In a cover letter for a job?

It’s sheer laziness.

As Deb Boyken points out in one of her blog posts:

We don’t want to make spelling too hard for everyone, so let’s just drop the standards so everyone can do it.

Or as my cousin lovingly said: “i knw dis passage contains lots ov errors…but errors don matter wen all written frm heart coz heart knows heart language..it makes all sense ov gobbledygook too!!”

Sweet.

I am the style guide police on this campus, but outside its confines, out in the real world, between ignorant mistakes and lazy teenagers there’s nothing I can do about written language’s sad, but sure, demise.

R.I.P.

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What can’t you live without?

As I was reading Nicholas Kristof’s What Could you Live Without, it prompted a lot of ideas. I looked around our house and all our accumulated gadgets stared back at me. In the past two years we have been good about giving away clothes, exercise machines, a TV, used laptops, and other miscellaneous items that were just sitting around the house gathering dust, but if I were to do a causal inventory today, I’d find tons of other things we don’t need but still have (being the great consumers we are!).

On a very basic level, there’s not much one “needs” but a lot of things one wants…but it’s kind of a blurred line for me — some of my wants are really needs.

Anyways, I thought long and hard about things I could live without, but it soon became overwhelming, so I decided instead to make a list of things I can’t live without.

Note: This list does not contain basic necessities like food/potable water and my spouse. It also doesn’t account for subjective abstracts like love, happiness, and purpose in life.

Here goes, in the order they occurred to me:

  • iPhone or some other handy device (like the iTablet iPad, perhaps?) that lets me stay connected. In decades past, books would have made it to the top of my list.
  • A clean bathroom (this is one thing that prevents me from going camping!).
  • Warm clothes.
  • Comfortable shoes.
  • Glasses or contact lenses.
  • Money (I am yet to determine how much is enough, but I guess anything that takes me through the day should suffice).
  • One hot meal a day.
  • A roof over my head.

Not too many things, eh? Try as I might, I can’t think of anything else I’d really need to lead a relatively happy life.

It’s quite revealing when you pause for a minute to reflect on all the commodities you have and the things you really can’t live without.

So, what are some of the things that you can absolutely not give up?

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What makes a good manager?

It’s been six months since I started working at Santa Clara University and almost nine years since I began my writing career. I’ve had five managers in a full-time capacity and three editors I’ve reported to as a freelancer and each of them has had a distinct personality, unique quirks, and interesting leadership styles. Recently, I hired an intern and have been pondering since what makes a good manager? Is it someone who is a visionary? Or someone who isn’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get in the trenches with you? Or is it someone who oversees from a distance, but trusts you enough not to micromanage? Or, perhaps, someone who isn’t afraid to lead the charge when you need support? I have determined that it isn’t one or the other … it’s a host of good qualities that make a good manager.

Here are some attributes I have observed in my managers that I hope to emulate as I supervise my intern.

A good manager is one who:

  • Knows their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Knows their team’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Leverages their team’s (and individual workers’) strengths to produce outstanding results.
  • Looks for development opportunities to keep the team growing.
  • Shields the team from the politics in the upper echelons of management so that the worker bees can continue to do their best.
  • Is honest in their communication with the team.
  • Is realistically ambitious about team goals.
  • Takes responsibility for deliverables.
  • Keeps short-term projects on target while keeping the bigger picture goals in sight.
  • Invites new ideas and encourages intellectual exchanges (i.e., is not a smart ass).
  • Recognizes and rewards good work. In other words, gives credit where it is due.
  • Is a good listener … and is able to read between the lines.
  • Has good time management skills.
  • Conducts meetings that are short, yet productive.
  • Has good people skills.
  • Sets the bar high.

Have you had any good managers along the road?

Do you consider yourself a good manager?

I invite you to share your thoughts…

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Adding the element of surprise

A good way of managing my professional time, I’ve been told, is to prioritize. I have a daily to-do list, a white board which I update (anally) with a list of current and future projects, and a good idea of the importance attached to each project (all requests from the president’s office come first). Having deadlines also helps. Despite all the planning, the one section of my white board that always overflows is entitled “Impromptu” — these are projects that just show up without a warning and, in most cases, need immediate attention.

Aggravating? It can be. But, I like to think it’s exciting. Even though these unannounced attention-mongers hog away at my time, I appreciate the element of surprise they add to my otherwise routine day. It makes every day chock-full of surprises. I am presented with a different challenge on a daily basis. Keeps me on my toes. Keeps me sharp. And I am able to still meet my (planned) deadlines. Well, 99 percent of them.

But what about personal life? On a daily basis, we simply follow the motions — wake up, go to work, come back, sleep. In between we squeeze some time for interpersonal interactions, watching TV, and eating. It’s just a reaction … it’s only routine. And the same attitude extends to a week, a month, a year, our life. Before we know it, it’s all a big glob of repetitive, drab ambulation. We buy into the idea of monotony so much, that it’s hard for us to even think of  changing that schedule.

What’s stopping you from spicing it up? Making it interesting…

Injecting some life into your evenings? Experimenting…

It’ll only give you something to look forward to, something to enjoy and cherish. A chance to create special memories out of simple everyday things.

Mixing it up a little even once a week (and don’t make a schedule of when), will make your home life not seem so mundane, so routine anymore. Here are some ideas to add an element of surprise in your evening routine:

  • Ditch a routine weekday dinner watching a pre-recorded television program for a night out.
  • Bring flowers home … just because.
  • Switch roles (the cook in the house does the cleaning, and the cleaner does the cooking — or any such variation).
  • Order in.
  • Spend an hour  with your significant other and kids (if you have any) just talking/playing as a couple/family.
  • Read a book instead of watching TV.
  • Sit in the jacuzzi (we have one in our house that we have used only twice in four years!).
  • Play a board game (or the Wii, if you’re so inclined).
  • Cook together.
  • Don’t bring work home.

Surprise yourself. Get creative. You’re more than a machine. You get only one shot at life — live it up.

I’ve given you 10 weeks’ worth of simple, easy-to-implement ideas. Got any of your own you’d like to share?

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The battle of the sexes

As I watched Modern Family last night (which, by the way, is the best new comedy on the airwaves these days) I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when one of the characters woke her daughter in the middle of the night and beseeched her teenager to teach her how to use the remote. The daughter sleepily, and irritatedly, asked, “Now? Why can’t daddy teach you?” and the mom ever so matter-of-factly responded, “Because we’re married.”

It was so succinctly put. Although I laughed, the veiled sadness of the situation wasn’t lost on me.

Marriage somehow tends to bring out all the stereotypes of both genders to the fore. Women and their emotional dramas. Men and their forgetfulness. The silent grouch. The overly-communicative diva. The one who won’t ask for directions. The one who loves the shopping channel. The mall-fashionista. The gadgety nerd. The nurturer. The provider. Unknowingly we find ourselves stuck in a socially-constructed maze of expectations. Almost unfailingly, we can “predict” what the general gender-specific reaction will be to something we say. We are so entangled in the politics of marriage, that we forget the reasons we entered this lifelong pact.

Besides the whole “love” part of it, wasn’t it about sharing a life together … accepting each others’ failures (and failings) … not being on the defense all the time … leaving our egos out the door … not judging … being a team instead of competing against each other?

And yet, we empathize with complete strangers of the same sex, but not with our spouse. How do we end up taking sides with those “against” our better half? How do we bond with colleagues( from different nationalities and different ethos) around spousal jokes? How are we able to label our significant other (who is so unique that we believe he/she was “made just for us”) into a general “this is what all men/women do” category? And we do it with so much reckless abandon all the time that it becomes second nature to the concept of marriage.

I guess it is just the way it is, given what a social construct marriage is to begin with. And since no one seems to mind it, who am I to question this age-old mechanism that continues to fuel the power struggle between men and women?

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Return to the age of innocence

I have been spending a lot of time with toddlers recently. Almost 95 percent of our Indian friend circle in the Bay Area have kids in the age range of 0-24 months and I, inadvertently, end up being the “entertainer” for their little ones. I choose that role because it allows me to experience unabridged, uncomplicated, uninhibited joy. Their curious eyes, their playfulness, and their squeaks of glee remind me of what I have lost in my journey to becoming an adult.

They are right at the precipice of learning language — the kind that we adults can understand — but despite their evident verbal “handicap” they’re pretty good communicators. They go around in circles when happy, cry in pain/to seek attention/when they can’t get their way, squeal in surprise, and say long sentences in gibberish when they’re trying to make a point.  They live in the moment.

It’s almost like attending a free seminar when I’m with these kids. They know how to live life king size. And they offer their “wisdom” to anyone willing to partake. I find our friends too overwhelmed by day-to-day challenges of feeding, cleaning, and keeping up to appreciate the wealth of insights to be had from these high-energy laughter-balls. And I don’t blame them. Parenting is no easy task. It’s difficult to gaze in wonderment when you’re cleaning poop.

As an outsider, though, who gets an inside peek into their kids’ Barney-enriched utopian worlds, I am grateful. They continually teach me to be free; to have an open mind where anything is possible; to question; to get amazed at the simplest things; and most importantly, to be me. They help peel away the layers of sophistication, knowledge, and suave and revel in the rawness of the human spirit. To experience happiness in its purest form. To feel satiated within.

I’ll feel a tinge of sadness as, in time, we’ll welcome these children into the adult world, but for now I shall  make the most of their wonder years and enjoy my return to the age of innocence.

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