Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year That Was

This was my most difficult year, numerous challenges and problems, first of which was my family issues, both here and back at my home country,  secondly my new role which was a huge load both at work and Toastmaster. The consequence of both challenges took more of my time, making me work more and increased my anxiety level. But I survived the initial bumps and these challenges will not go away, they will continue into the new year, causing me to continuously be more efficient and productive just to survive and be above the waters, causing me to learn more and work long hours; these are no longer the trials of a young person and requires the serious attention of a mature person. Perhaps it will be the trigger to launch new endeavors as one tries to surmount these problems with imagination and drive. The war continuous so to speak, though one had survived the horrible year.

I learned that one can handle hugely difficult problems despite the magnitude and severity; able to think of innovative solutions and focus on the core issue. But one also learned that one can run away from pressing issues; preferring to escape and indulge in senseless activities as a way to de-stress, though allowing problems to snowball. One wonders if this is an escape mechanism or just the mind and body seeking respite from the long hours and tension. Nevertheless, coming back to the struggle one finds that the worry was not warranted; it was only the mind giving its own priorities and deadlines, self-imposed as one strives to be on top of things. Hence, its not a disaster as one would think, so one must control the mind, to widen its perspective, away from the feeling of impending disaster. Therefore, one must not raise the alarm, though self-inflicted when trying to be 'perfect', rather be more realistic in expectations. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

I spent my holiday break organizing stuff,  throw out old mail and sorting paper work. I still need to do more: organize my garage, research on the possible options for my problems and reach out  to the folks for supportive connections. One realizes it is one’s own emotions that prevents one from engaging people at home and work; afraid that more problems would come or that it would result in perceived shortcoming though at times it seemed one lacked the mental bandwidth to process more information. So one spends most of his vacation watching movies; about 15 movies so far, several magazines and 2 audio books. I installed Ubuntu in an old laptop and had another one fixed so I am up to my ears in technology as I had purchased a Bluetooth headphone having discovered Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn; the beauty of listening to streaming music and lectures.

In the end, the bigger battle is to convince people to follow one's plans. This requires leadership, perseverance and will. But I shirk from these responsibilities, thinking it is not my problem, thinking what else can one do if people don't want to listen to me.  This is not a whining lament or the musing of a spoiled child; perhaps more of suggesting solutions that are not usual, one’s predilection for all-encompassing systemic solutions by looking at the inner truth (though according to one’s point of view). Perhaps it’s the worrying mind trying to be perfect. One sometimes hangs back afraid or lacks confidence, instead resorting to worry and resolving to distraction via entertainment and technology. Unfortunately, its the challenge in the coming year as one's troubles have not gone away and will increase. Hence, to be more forceful and to think of more creative solutions to solve these problems, controlling one's emotions and avoiding distractions.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Debacle at Work

The day started well, swimming in the early morning at the gym, afterwards sweating in the steam bath, then coffee and my usual breakfast of yogurt, boiled egg and green tea plus some chocolates and cookies left over from yesterday’s sharing event. After working on a few things, getting to my cube half an hour late, I received a chat message from a customer representative regarding a matter in the warehouse, so I walked to the delivery manager and discussed the subject, but unfortunately, he was busy fighting raging fires like the rest of his team here in the front office and back in India, addressing an avalanche of problems that tumbled out of a major piece of software delivered to production recently. All hands on deck, everyone except me and a few colleagues spared from this debacle, the development and support people working late into the evening and during weekends to fix multitudes, painstakingly one by one, the unsung heroes of the technology world, striving to solve the technical crisis, stretching their mental prowess (or more like hitting their heads against the wall) while their western overlords long gone to their huge homes, talking about the setback existentially as if it does not concern them.

Amid this backdrop, I walked to the area manager’s office to talk about my concern that the delivery manager is fully booked, unable to work on other problems like the warehouse boo-boo to the consternation of the customer representative.  But I walked straight into a witch hunt with me as the scape goat. A project I worked on has just been completed successfully, and the final milestone meeting was completed in the morning. But a crucial piece of the software was not delivered despite continuous assurance to the contrary, the area and project manager looking like fools in the committee meeting, emerging angry and looking for someone to blame and here I come, the analyst of the project ready to be slaughtered.  Why did I not test the software fully? Why did I not alert them that more time was needed? Protesting I said they rushed the project to completion, trying to achieve a year-end success, cutting corners everywhere so testing quality suffers. At the end of the day in my view, it was a failure of management; I think they realized that there was no escaping responsibility, with myself sharing equal blame but these two stooges, bereft of any decent backbone to accept their end wanted to put everything on my shoulders.

Nevertheless, I did keep my cool, exchanging barbs and accusations, trying to rise above the petty finger pointing and be a man, which I think these guys can never be, rather mediocre like those overlords shifting blame and hard work to the poor peons of the world. It was not a good way to start the Christmas holidays, so we spent a couple of minutes trading barbs, discussing shortcomings and lessons learned, that we finally ended the close door meeting, emerging with the feeling that I have lost respect for these guys.  I think I have done well in the verbal exchange, able to say my piece and give my opinion. Now one needs to be mature and get on with the work. I kept cool after returning to my cube, mildly surprised that I was not seething; remembering the outcome would be different in my youth especially with the coarseness and stupidity of the exchange, but instead focusing on completing the work for the day. At noon, I had lunch with a nice French colleague, exchanging views on Europe, America, French leaders and history plus French food; enjoying the banter in the gleaming new modern canteen. I realized it was better to talk to expats than overlords engrossed in their exceptional ism.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Space Odyssey

BBC has an excellent series about space travel that is realistic and down to earth (ignore the pun), continuing the exploration of the solar system as if NASA had the budget to fund further adventures; the show focused on travels to Venus, Mars, moons of Jupiter (IO and Europa) and Saturn (Titan), Pluto and a comet, offering tragic tales like the death of a crew member and other human drama. The show is plausible, without the fantastic over-the-top special effects although there were incredible scenes of outer space; instead focusing on the astronauts and mission control - the human element; travelling in a realistically designed space craft called 'Pegasus'. The voyage took several years, in a spirit similar to the sea voyages of Columbus, Magellan and the other sea explorers who discovered the new world, preserving the atmosphere of discovery without the distraction of Hollywood sensationalism. The science was good and seemingly well researched something I could confirm after watching a Nova documentary about the search for alien life, another excellent show that combined scientific fact and research with incredible visuals, though not losing the seriousness of science (no ET).

It was a week of the full moon and I had a chance to observe the moon via my binoculars for several evenings, supplementing the videos I watched on the planets. I find that astronomy is a way to stimulate discovery without the need for travel, achieving a sort of understanding of life by understanding the meaning of the universe, a mixture of organic compounds in the hustle and bustle of planetary life; worlds colliding, comets crashing down, solar bursts until a unique mix of circumstances where 3 necessary elements to create life exists: organic materials, liquid (like water) and energy (from the sun). It does seem to take billions of years before human life could evolve to its present state, something like Charles Darwin's theory of evolution applied to physics, microbiology and the world of planetary evolution, a seemingly random occurrence that results in life, though Einstein would say 'God does not play dice with the universe' challenging the notion of randomness though evoking the concept of a universal omniscient being. It does seem a miracle, unless one believes that aliens dropped us here or that a divine God willed the world to creation.  Indeed as compared to other world religions, the Indian myth of creation does seem closer to the actual way the world evolved.

One feels elevated when one understands the planets, like someone who traveled the earth, seeing many things and places, of different food and cultures. Astronomy opens a similar door, a sort of scientific mysticism since one does not really taste the concept of 'space' except the vision of distant planets (or the moon) via a telescope, a true communion with a greater reality. Soon the problems of work, of one's personal life, the difficult tasks that one needs to do to move forward, the exhaustion and seemingly fruitlessness of human existence, all seem to disappear when one is confronted with the vastness of the night sky, the unending universe. It's one simple way to relieve one's anxiety, to take a break like a sort of meditation, perhaps more profound than yoga or Tai chi, more an intellectual and spiritual unity. Not expensive too, except the purchase of telescopes or binoculars, although much less than the cost of touring the earth with the expense of plane tickets, hotel accommodation, costly tours or visits to museums. One can only achieve this appreciation of space in the only country who has mastered interplanetary travel with its command of science and technology (though the show was good due to sobriety of the English). Perhaps this achievement  has contributed to the culture of excess.?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Planets

Last night I looked at the full moon through my binoculars, walking in my backyard in the descending evening, observing the sky especially the moon in the dark tranquility of my lawn.  Moon watching and astronomy in general, I had thought before as an elitist and highly intellectual activity, sort of like a snobbish thing to do for dilettantes as against professional astronomers who observe the sky for their work. In fact, astronomy has progressed through the ages with the hard work of amateurs; most discoveries done by enthusiast rather than professionals. I sipped a Bloody Mary while watching the moon, enjoying the solitude and quiet, an interesting feature of most American neighborhoods, unlike the noise and bustle of Asian subdivisions, thinking about the day past and my procrastinating. I have become an enthusiast, thinking perhaps that observing space objects would take away one’s attention from oneself and instead discover a wider universe so to speak and, thereby, reap the benefits of detachment from self. This is an ancient tradition, especially in Japan and China, where moon watching is a treasured activity by elites, poets, farmers, warriors and common men.

I have borrowed several DVDs about space travel, planets and the solar system, the moon, the Apollo missions and astronomy in general while spending several hours actually observing the moon in the evenings. I have also seen the sensational movie ‘Gravity’ in 3D IMAX, possibly the closest one could get being in space. I visited the local observatory and planetarium, as well as listening to books like Dava Sobel’s ‘The Planets’ and Haruki Murakami’s ‘1Q84,’ whose characters see 2 moons. Astronomy, I have found to be a relaxing activity, not to be technically proficient in star gazing, but as an act of meditation and relaxation. It is the timeless activity of gazing into the stars, a pastime for those who love the outdoors, camping in the wilderness with only the night stars as one’s companion.  I have bolstered my understanding by using sky charts and moon phase apps downloaded into my Android tablet supplementing the knowledge I gained from watching DVDs. This has increased one’s understanding of the universe’s origin, recalling the ancient myths and religions that speak about creation, right smack into the creationist theory that is influencing some states in as sort of anti-science.

Dumbing down of science is perhaps a reaction to the advancement of knowledge through space research, the information gained from satellites and space probes launched to Jupiter and Saturn’s moons, by the Hubble space telescope and the findings from various high altitude observatories scattered all over the earth. Extra-terrestrial life no longer seems far-fetched, in fact an obvious reality that time will prove; this causes reactionaries to fear the loss of certainties that religion and culture have given time immemorial, to face the inevitability of alien life like it was the end of the world. Hence, religion is threatened, ever since the renaissance when science shook away the darkness of superstition. This anti-science and anti-reasoning seem sometime to influence the right wing extremists like libertarians and tea party members, a gut reaction to change of any sort. This call to mind the phrase attributed to Mark Twain that traveling is the enemy of bigotry and small town thinking; the more so space travel. Perhaps we should blast these reactionaries into space for the education of a lifetime, to float into the emptiness of space and see the world from thousands of miles above the earth.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Weekend Waste

I picked up both my sons from university during the weekend, travelling 2 hours after work on Friday evening and nearly 4 hours the next day to and from the colleges, journeying in the evening and through heavy rain the next day, passing traffic accidents along the way. This disrupted my normal weekend schedule but I was able to rush through the needed movies and read the necessary magazines to complete my weekly quota of study that I bring myself to do every weekend. Nevertheless it was a waste, a study in scheduled procrastination, not undertaking what I really wanted to do: to write my book and explore the internet for other opportunities to earn money. Instead I allowed myself to indulge in episodes of abuse and trivialities, listening to music, drinking cocktails and not focusing on seriousness until my friend called on Saturday evening to tell me that his medical insurance was denied, shocking me back into what is truly important, faced with the possibility of real loss and despair, but not surprised as the tragedy unfolds like a slow motion scene where everyone knows the outcome, with people afraid to act boldly to help.

The actor Peter O’ Toole died in the weekend, an inspiring artist who portrayed the reckless flair of a gifted aristocrat or outsider, exuberant and indulgent in his vices, som
eone who strove forward fearlessly, with intuitive grace and self-destructive urges willing to challenge the order of things. These character traits he portrayed gave inspiration to my youth, to live without fear and enjoy life in the belief that one’s intuitive intelligence and coolness will save the day, often with daring and verve, indulging in drink and foolishness while achieving the goal at the last minute. But it was a dream that never came to be, accused that he had unfulfilled his promise, a lost child still in his dreams like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s tale, looking for redemption in his last hours, like Walter Mitty trying to make a last stand in middle age.  At least I contributed in the housework; cooking breakfast of ham omelet, bacon, sausage and eggs and dinner of minced meat with potatoes and carrots. Still it was a waste to keep borrowing movies, focused on a leisure life of consumption, devouring media in the hopes of being smarter; but working on a task is enough compensation, true salvation even if achieved in ignorance of current or cultural events.

Perhaps one is too serious when one should be light; to be more like a mercurial Peter O’Toole than the more serious and brooding Richard Burton; ‘to just be’ what one wants to be following EST. It is being ‘light’, throwing away heavy baggage: to follow social conventions, to have a degree or diploma,  to have necessary experience, instead of being confident that one has what it takes to succeed. In times of emergency, it does come out: to travel across the state and work with hospital authorities, to easily assume a new role, to make decisions and write appropriate emails, to invest in new areas without fear. The fact one has done so makes one think one is travelling too fast already, trying to break the sound barrier when one already arrived in a state of grace, driven by experience and readings one already has; ‘book’ learning is no longer needed but ‘just be’. The secret lies in front of you, no need to travel to ancient lands, to read multiple books, to keep exploring when the journey is done. There are no more secrets, the destination is reached but one is too busy to notice. It is time to relax and have fun, to be light and be in grace, achieving a sort of mystical equilibrium with the world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Canada Dreams

Since coming back from the North, back from across the Ottawa River and the Great Lakes, one has engorged himself with all things Canadian, hungry for new knowledge after the visit. I watched movies like ‘Anne of the Green Gables’, ‘Tales of Avonlea’, and ‘Let Sleeping Dog Lie’ plus many travel videos on places like Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and of course the great cities of Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec. It does seem like a fabled land despite the ridicule and contempt felt by most Americans about the giant across its northern borders, a land of cold and a dull but civilized people, with incredible mountain vistas, giant rivers and lakes, wooded forest; like a kinder and gentler version of the union of states, albeit a socialist version like some Europe implant in the new world, an aberration in the Western Hemisphere, preserving old world customs of French and English gentility. Its history does not have the scars of slavery or the brutal Indian wars or the civil rights struggle but a well-organized behemoth fashioned by Oxford scholars with experience managing the far-flung colonies of the British Empire.

Perhaps one has migrated to the wrong country, although one does face high taxes, he or she is protected from medical emergencies, the bane of life in the USA, with the mean partisan squabbles against Obamacare, a legitimate attempt to make health care affordable to all. This is the main attraction as one faces rising medical bills, the recent episode bringing into sharper focus, when one’s past decision results in a heart attack and exorbitant cost driven by a materialistic lifestyle, hiding from the perils of resident problems unlike the open policy of Canada, a gift from the first world power that resulted in a cosmopolitan world view, away from the provincial and isolationist view of its powerful neighbor. The quaint stories of children growing up in Prince Edward Island, or the genteel traditions in the provinces, the fishing communities that line the Atlantic Ocean and even in the huge cities lining the St. Lawrence River give the heart a welcome feeling, a moderate society which some call a hypocrite by living within the powerful nuclear protection of it neighbor. 

One can live in his old age and disappear in the welcoming wilderness, in its small town of welcoming people, living among the old English, French and even the ancestors of the Loyalist who moved north after the defeat of Cornwallis. One wonders how two countries living close by can grow differently; one a rabid free-for all, capitalistic money loving society while the other a more communal social society where one is respected without the history of a brutal civil war. One can dream of walking the quaint streets of old Montreal, buying bagels for breakfast and eating sweet meats, going to church in grand Catholic cathedrals, enjoying the river fishing and boating, away from the dog eat dog of it southern cousin. Its feels like some enchanted land, like an English and French dream of long ago, a true new world built upon the lessons of the old, unlike its neighbor who grew of its self-aware (and arrogant) belief of its own exceptionalism, resulting in deceptive imperialism, hidden under the cloak of free trade and unrestrained markets.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Mindfulness among Geeks

A recent article in Wired magazine talked about meditation, about mindfulness training in Silicon Valley, describing the popularly of meditation amongst engineers from Google and Facebook, an antidote for the always stressed, always connected denizens of the net. It is a long way coming, meditation being the only alternative aside from sex, alcohol and drugs to ease stress. In fact it is an ancient practice in all religions of the world, an accepted remedy for the pressure of life. Now the practice has gone mainstream, like a skill easily learned like say learning a new programming language. Now everyone is in it, in some ways to improve their product by including the awareness and tranquility that one feels in meditation, adding features to show love and peace in Facebook or some other app; an attempt to increase the product’s attractiveness.  Witness the coming conference that spreads the word to those otherwise millionaire developers in the valley, transcending LSD and yoga; delving into the deeper stuff, to learn who you are, the new EST for geeks.


Intuitively one has gone this path before, meditating to control the monkey mind; thereby one sees that the growth of a person is actually increasing facility with mind control; to be mature as against being childlike. In this respect Buddhist societies like Thailand and Japan are well advanced cultures, learning ancient tools to make their life better, now transmitted into the West, first with yoga and now mindfulness and meditation, perhaps an adjunct to the increasing acceptability of marijuana. I have been neglecting Tai Chi practice, engaged in the flow of the world, getting home, watching television or videos or reading magazines, keeping the mind engaged like it was a sin to keep the brain still. Only swimming every week is the only form of meditation, similarly done by people like Stephen Covey. Now it is clear that knowledge workers need mental training, to relax and increase one’s awareness. Especially when one has experienced the jolt of a medical emergency, the near death experience of a loved one, that one faces his mortality, focusing the mind into the essentials of life.

The new job bring more mental challenges aside from concern to one’s sick relatives, thinking about money and medical bills, of the future and one’s children, seemingly vulnerable in this harsh world of economic problems, political partisanship and meanness. The constant inflow of email, chat, deadlines and people to talk to, to follow-up and work on new systems while thinking of ways to make money, to pay for medical bills and college tuition, to pay mortgages and to live a decent lifestyle , now threatened by medical problems and a difficult job. But one only needs to show up, to take things day by day, to fight anxiety by journal writing, cognitive behavior training and Tai Chi. Mental exhaustion is caused by oneself, by taking in too much television and videos, or books; trying to be in the know as one hopes to know all and be smart so he can survive at work, to solve all these problems by learning something new. But this is only book learning, with no actual experience except one at work, trying to learn new things by watching video lectures in YouTube when all one gets is more anxiety and stress.

Poe’s Heart

It’s all about anxiety according to the book by Dr. Richard Restak; come to think of it, that’s true as it inhibits one’s courage and prevents people from achieving their potential. It is a world where anxiety reigns, defined as unrealistic scenarios plaguing the mind, unlike fear which is a reaction against a real threat like a bear chasing you.  So apprehension is manufactured by the brain, a cognitive failure that one does not recognize until his life draws to an end or towards middle age that one question what happened to his life; why did one not take another road in his life’s journey. A heart attack or other maladies like hypertension or auto immune disease are likely a result of chronic stress (as well as a bad lifestyle, poor diet and no exercise); but anxiety is a mental illness, an emotional problem causing stress. Recently, after watching a Yale lecture in YouTube, one learns that anxiety is an emotional disorder. It is this disorder that is shaping one’s life as he grows, making choices based on his cognitive disability; swerving here and there to avoid stress and nervousness or suffering from it as the case may be.

Last weekend friends come over the house for lunch of chili crab, ‘laksa’, spicy Thai barbecue (or satay), fried chicken, clams cooked with butter, homemade ice cream, white wine and coffee. It was fun with different nationalities: French, Thai and Filipino; diversity dissolving into commonalities. We watched photo albums in YouTube playing out in a huge television, of past lunches in Robinson Lake or other such get-together. Previously one experiences stress and angst when organizing these social events but now comes easily, no trace of discomfort, just the mechanical preparation of food and place. I guess the ease has come with repeated practice, lunches that one has organized in the past, same with the ease with the other things one does in work and life; managing projects, leading teams, traveling and working with people of different cultures. It is the constant stretching; to go beyond one’s comfort zone that drive one to experience new things and do them often to get expertise. But one needs to correct one’s cognitive bias and go beyond one’s normal fretfulness.

Being a creative writer (or working on any other endeavor) is ham stringed by nervousness; one does not really know if the work will be rejected; hence, one procrastinates because of this unease. The emotion cannot be called fear because it is not a real threat; can one call it fear of failure or just simply anxiety? Working in a new role is another challenge, where one is paralyzed into inactivity because of worry; unable to move forward because of mental demons (so EST training encourages one to ‘just be’). In fact life is not as difficult as one thinks; one can be all he can by just moving forward without angst. Yesterday, looking at my caricature after being drawn by a local artist during the Christmas lunch, one sees a chubby balding man, with pleasant features, seemingly like a kind uncle without knowledge of the churning ideas and anxieties plaguing his mind. The caricature is supposed to highlight certain features, exaggerating them to a sort of animated reality, to a cartoon that one faces a mediocrity of unfulfilled promises shackled by anxiety.