Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"You are not you" - A poignant portrayal of ALS

"You are not you" - A poignant portrayal of ALS
One of the most difficult things to acknowledge and accept with stoic equanimity is to watch a young, talented and vibrant individual reduced to a vegetative state by a disease. Death in any form seems cruel to us, but when is afflicts somebody young - paralyzing, debilitating and decaying the human body from within - then the pain of it for the victim and for those who care for them becomes unbearable. Life suddenly transforms itself into something cruel and heartless; and all vestiges of faith and hope tend to diminish - and what remains is an intense state of skepticism and a deep mistrust of life.
ALS is one such disease. With its cause virtually unknown, and cure almost impossible - its victims suffer from a condition that can only be termed as tragic. Muscles atrophy, breathing becomes progressively difficult, vocal chords give way to incoherent speech; the fine balance between the brain and bodily organs slowly degenerates into an uncoordinated symphony - pushing the individual into completely dependent existence, taking away every sense of bodily freedom available. But ironically and cruelly, it keeps the mind intact. The intellectual, emotional faculties are left untouched, unimpaired - as though, life wished to play a cruel joke upon its own creation - watching it with sadistic pleasure withering to waste under its own steady gaze; smothering all ambitions, aspirations and expectations . There is nothing one can do, but to wait for those final moments when pain will reach its consummation in death, with just a little solace that may possibly be acquired from holding on to a last ray of hope that life after this pain may after all still hold promise of a resurrection, a regeneration. But that is only a desperate hope., a tedious consolation for the immense pain that one has to bear in the present.
The film "You are not you" is a poignant portrayal of an ALS victim. Kate (played by Hilary Swank) is a brilliant pianist, married to a corporate lawyer and leading a comfortable life; until she realizes the slow onset of ALS. Her hands twitch, grip fails, her usually nimble fingers that effortlessly caresses piano keys suddenly seem out of sync with musical notes she has in mind. And from then on, it is a steady road to degenerative dependence. Bec (played the beautiful Emmy Rossum) is hired as her care-giver. An aspiring singer, college drop-out, wayward and directionless in life - she finds in Kate the meaning of life, conviction and courage. In fact, both of them find transformative experiences in each other. Kate finds renewed solace in life that is so perilously close to death; and Bec begins to live life to her true potential watching the stubborn confidence and resolution of Kate.Their relationship is mutually complementary, fulfilling and beautiful.
The story, direction and treatment of this sensitive subject may seem clichéd; but for me, a movie is defined by the understanding its actors have of their roles and its significance. An average predictable story can be elevated to sublime levels of artistry if its protagonists are well chosen, and they know what to do.. And that exactly is the case with this film. Hilary Swank as Kate has pulled almost an impossible exhibition of what it is to be a victim of ALS. As one watches her steady confident self slowly succumbing to the travails of this disease, her entire body writhing with pain, losing coherence day by day - Ms. Swank manages to carry us along into her precipitous descent of bodily incarceration - displaying a veracity, intensity and emotional fullness that could move one to tears.. Its a movie she has co-produced, so she has understood the nuances of her role to a great degree of detail. And then Emmy Rossum as her care-giver is just about perfect. Her large, deep luminous black eyes sparkle with emotions as it changes tide from extremely frivolity to deep sadness and hurt. Many critics consider her as one of the most talented actors of this generation. I must agree with them.. Her screen presence is phenomenal; and to keep pace with Hillary Swank's brilliance is no easy task. She has done it with aplomb. George Wolfe's direction is average. In all fairness to him, there was nothing for him to do but to set the scene and allow two great actors to take over.
To conclude, the movie will move you to tears, however much you may try not to. Last year there was a challenge going around in Facebook to spread awareness of ALS. If you truly wish to know what it could do to a potentially healthy human being, then see this movie. You may start looking at ALS differently...
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala



Sunday, June 14, 2015

Life and Work - a conversation with an Engineer

John is a fantastic network engineer. Stocky, well built, sharp penetrating eyes, a drawling southern accent - he was probably the most attentive in our group. He asked questions in a manner that is unlikely to offend anybody, interjected his studied comments with a gentleness that enhanced the quality of subject being taught without deviating from the topic- John presented himself as befitting a professional with over twenty years of networking experience behind him. His knowledge of network transport protocols was almost eerie to say the least. He would talk of bytes, zeros and ones, routers, TCP layers - in such intimate tones that an outsider happening to overhear would definitely assume something is wrong with him. Probably – a mental imbalance. His standard line over the last five days “Network packets don’t lie”. He was sitting next to me, and so both of us developed a bond that comes when two individuals are in a similar quest to understand technical nuances. We arrived early, went to lunch together, hung around after day’s work talking about myriad things. He was, in short, a delight to know.
During one of our conversations earlier this week, our discussion somehow meandered towards organization, growth and success within an organization. John said “You know Bala, I have never bargained or argued with my manager during any of my yearly appraisals. I have been with this company for last ten years. And each time, I have gotten those regular hikes that everyone else got, and frankly, I have never - and I am being very candid here with you - never had this feeling that I have been let down by Company or I have been undervalued; though I know that in our support team , I probably resolve more problems than most. I work from home. Have three daughters, and I have been able to take all three to school each day , bring them back; been there for them whenever they have wanted me, tuck them into bed, taken vacations with all of them – all this would not have possible if not for the freedom, trust and flexibility this organization provides. They have tremendous respect for what I do, but somehow all this has never really translated into money, and I care less you know, I love this world of network packets. Working with them gives me a transcendental experience. My Management understands this pulse well; they know I am there if there is something critical to be attended to and I will give it my best; and give me the space that I need to grow and live a more holistic life, and more importantly understands my priorities. The point Bala, is that I consider all this to be intangible benefits that cannot be reckoned in monetary terms. And each time, when one of my friends chide me that I am not being ambitious enough, or should be bullying my organization into giving me an incredible hike or that great promotion that is given to a less deserving person- I always politely remind them that what I truly value in life is something money alone can never provide me, and also make it a point to remind them that no matter how much one makes, or how “successful” one is - really important things in life often have nothing to do with them.. Of course, the company pays me well to take care of my family comfortably, and my needs. I have managed to send all my three kids to college. With me being around, they studied better, very more psychologically comfortable- and that was important for their career choices. Not for a moment am I questioning the need for a solid economic base, but to be purely driven by this unceasing maddening need to look at growth only in terms of gross annual income is somehow not ok with me. I am a biker (have a Harley with me.., bought it after five to six years of regular savings.. He laughed a little), play the guitar as part of a local band, a volunteer at community college, read a lot, have fun - in all, I am a contented man. Yes, probably earning a little less than what industry pays for one with my experience and expertise, but I would not trade what I am doing right now for anything else… “
A very interesting point of view. This is the time of the year when many organizations conduct their annual appraisals; Bonuses and Hikes largely figure in such discussions. In fact, for many growth is only always measured only in terms of increased money and position. We cannot blame them -the way we have structured our society, nothing seems more indicative of success than this. And it is in this context, John’s attitude found resonance in me. Growth to me is an inner flowering of peace and contentment that comes not from a lack of ambition or drive, but an understanding that those are only miniscule part of life, and there are deeper interests and concerns that need to be tapped. Of course, in organized society, one must be able to live comfortably, and to that extant money is required but beyond it, it must be very quality of life that must fulfill us. And it often found true, that if we don’t compulsively crave after material gains, mysteriously it finds its way towards us. If quality of our work is impeccable, and pursuit of excellence is our aim - then there is no way the system can avoid recognizing it, or, looking at it from an other perspective - we don’t feel the pain or lack of such recognition. We do something because we love doing it. And what is done through love rarely goes wrong. That is a beautiful state to be in. But unfortunately, for most, the thinking is along these lines: Make me financially more stable, or give me a better position, then I shall work better. Life doesn’t always work that way. In John’s case, his work, his creativity, his tremendous love for whatever he is doing, his beautiful family - is his only drive. Nothing else comes in his way. And the result is obvious: he is a happy man - at peace with himself and the world around him. I think Steve jobs put in well when he said ““The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” And let me add - once, you have found your inner love, then do it for its own sake. For such people, success is not something they need to aspire, achieve or measure in monetary terms, it is in their very nature and its fulfillment is visible in each act. And thankfully, there are many like John in our world…
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

A night in Downtown San Francisco

A night in Downtown San Francisco
There can no better learning experience than staying in a Hotel room, right above a teeming night club, in the middle of downtown San Francisco. Such hotels call themselves “boutique" styled establishments. When I did a casual research on the word "Boutique”, this is what I found : "Boutique hotel is a term used in North America and the United Kingdom to describe small hotels in unique settings with upscale accommodations.". Interesting! The hotel is definitely uniquely located, but whether upscale or not, I may not be the best judge. I am perfectly happy with this place though. I am a firm believer in the tradition of Alexander pope that the poper study of mankind lies in observing man and his behavior in the different circumstances. It is easy to put on ones best behavior in a place where everything is decent and orderly, but to remain so under most tempting circumstances is difficult. Ones gets pulled in different directions. This is definitely a place where temptations can wind their strangling tentacles around you. When I checked in yesterday afternoon, I was in this rather tranquil state of mind, after having spent close to six hours on flight reading Rebecca's Goldstein's book on Gödel and his incompleteness theorem. The esoteric subject of the book, and peerless prose of Ms. Goldstein together tickled my intellect and managed to push it into a cocoon of solemn reflection. So when I checked into my room, it took a little while for me to realize that there was no window to my accommodation. There was only an opening which may technically fall within the broad definition of a window, but all that I could see outside were walls of another room a feet away, and some odd looking chimney pipes crawling up the walls to some unknown destination. But frankly, I didn't mind it. The little room was neat, clean, and decently furnished. And to top it all has a fabulous internet connection (much better than most hotels I have stayed in). More importantly, I felt wonderfully comfortable and cozy. As night descended on a chilly San Francisco evening, things began to warm up. I had a good hot shower, jumped into my Shorts and T-shirt, ducked my Kindle in and stepped out to meet the diverse, eclectic humanity are an integral part of this beautiful city.
Tourists, gay, lesbians, homeless, college students, working professionals, hawkers, hookers – name them and they are all there, bustling around. There is a quality of freedom and way of life that was palpable in the way people moved, conversed and bargained. One couldn’t walk a few steps without bumping into somebody else. My Hotel lies in the corner of Ellis Street, which my friend tells me is the heart of downtown. I believe him. I always thought Manhattan was crazy, but this place has a distinct stamp to its craziness that I haven’t quite observed elsewhere. I was told that Pizzas at “Blondie's” is something one shouldn’t miss.( Here we go again - I am not sure what it is with the word Blonde and me, We seem to be having a rather strange relationship with each other, of late). Well, I wasn’t disappointed with my Pizza and the crowd around. I was surrounded by young couples in distinct postures of embrace, literally oozing love and affection - that kind of made me look an odd ball out. Yet, despite all distractions, the food had to be eaten, which I did and was fabulous indeed, then walked straight to the night club right below my hotel room.
This was not an adult club, but one of those establishments where youngsters love to dance and frolic in gay abandon. Drinks overflowing, food devoured, bodies giving into crazy rhythm of music played by a DJ hidden from common eyes. Fluorescent lights, incandescent glow papers, glasses and walls gives one a feeling of stepping into a world that is cut off from normal waking consciousness. It was a weekend and the place was packed. The decibel of noise was almost deafening as one stepped into its insulated walls. Thirty five dollars to gain entry. Bouncers assessing your demeanor with hawk like eyes; like TSA’s, they are trained to spot trouble. Once inside, a beautiful looking hostess, dressed in low necked skirt, blue eyes, and a smile that bordered between good manners and charming led me in. For a moment, her eyes wandered to see if there somebody accompanying me, but quickly realized I was alone and very courteously took to a booth at the further end of their lengthy dancing hall and graciously retired. I had a wonderful hour or so, eating a bowl of fried rice, sipping iced tea and watching action around. It somehow reminded me of Dionysian rituals I have read about. Human beings wish an escape, a relapse into a state of nescience – where mind is kept at bay, and all that matters is dissolving in the vortex of energy and heat created by gyrating bodies and warm fluids. Frankly, there was nothing indecent or rabid about it. Thee hall was packed with at lleast 400 people, but there was an unwritten decorum followed. Of course, occasional miscreants did creep in, but overall - after a time, I fell in tune with this orderly chaos.
It was twelve in the night, and I had work to do to keep me awake for at least three more hours.… So Here I was sitting on my comfortable bed, right on top on where the maddening action was happening. Not for a moment would I have believed if anyone had told me that there was a night club below my room. Here it is then: Peace at one end, chaos on the other and life dangles in between.
God bless…

The myth of Spelling bees..

The myth of Spelling bees..
Yet another set of Indian Kids have won the National Spelling bee contest this year. In the last fifteen years, this prestigious prize has gone to a kid of Indian origin a whopping 12 times. By any stretch of imagination or ratiocination - this is a significant statistic that can leave no doubt about the fact that Indian kids have found a way to crack this game of etymology. No jokes!!.
But here is the thing that I am worried about: I was talking to a couple of Indian parents in my community as I headed out for my evening walk, when one of the high-energy fathers enthusiastically said “Sir, I have started training my son on Spellings. He has a habit of reading, and I am sure he will be good with words". The other parent (Mother in this case) nodded her head excitingly and said “Ramesh (her son) also is like that. When he was four, he would not go to bed without flipping though few pages of a book...” She had a proud, beaming smile on her face -" We have already started forming spelling study groups, and Ramesh is doing very well" Both the boys in question were standing around their parents with a dazed look. Their faces did not light up when Spelling bee was talked about. In fact, one of them had look of dismay and perplexity. It was clear to me that given a chance, they would voice their opinion on what they felt about Spelling bee, and their interest in it - but, you know how it is with Indian kids, they know better. When Indian parents get on this bandwagon of planning children’s life - there is no stopping them.
This is largely the problem with Indian parenting when it comes to education, especially those who have come into this country on work visas, or been here for five to ten years forming their own little Indian coteries (state wise, religion wise or whatever wise). Most kids would have spent a little time in Indian schooling systems, and when they are grafted here, they do have a definite edge in their ability to retain things learnt, and tend to do well when it comes to exams and grades. The fact being: That's all we are trained to do, so we better be good at it. And traditionally, that is how Indian education has functioned (I am told that has changed radically in the last decade or so, and I want to believe it) - Peer pressure, competition, mad race to get more marks, severe parental expectation to come on top of every activity, cramming books - hallmarks of a system that has mechanically aping colonial legacy. I am appalled when I hear kids securing maximum marks in languages (100/100 in English, Unbelievable). Intelligence is such cases seem to be more or less measured in one’s ability to retain and regurgitate. Hence this mad rush into pushing kids into competitions where this indoctrinated ability can be advertised. Add to this, the relentless comparison of one's kids with that of neighbor's, and the compulsive need to be on par in everything they do. Typically, an Indian kid in the US is likely to attend three or four extracurricular activities, not always because they show an interest, or express a wish to be enrolled - but solely because Parents want them to. And we all know why?
This myth about winning a spelling bee contest as a great intellectual victory should be debunked as quickly as possible. It is a good competition, no doubt - but to be treated as play and nothing more. It is never a measure of intelligence. In fact to force a child to go through the torture of memorizing thousands and thousands of words without context, and usage is a moral crime. Some kids, I know have a natural flair for words. They pick up roots of words and their derivatives intuitively. Historically, Spelling bee contest was meant for such kids, and not to be made into an institution of torture as it is quickly becoming to be.
Ragashree Ramachandran, who won this contest in 1988 (second Indian to win it after Balu Natarajan broke the jinx in 1985), is now a surgical pathologist in gastroenterology - had this to say in a recent interview: " I think some potential spellers and their families may have this idea that winning the national spelling bee is an automatic passport to success, and I really don't think that's true.." She also went on say that she hardly spells now, but the most important learning that has stayed with her all these years after the spelling bee preparation is her need to speak and right with grammatical accuracy, precision and right choice of “simple words”. How very true!!
I only wish and pray that these kids grow up wise like Ragashree, and find success in life based on their intelligence, interest and commitment to their life choices. If spelling bee contest can contribute a little towards it, then so be it; otherwise we may be barking up the wrong tree…
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala