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Understanding Privilege

I would like to believe that I am a self made man. Don’t get me wrong, I know very well that I have not rewritten history, I am not a influencer or a trend setter in any way. I work for a living, and absolutely will need to do so in order to build a stable environment for my family. But I would like to think that I have come a long way from growing up in TamilNadu to some guy in Houston, Texas. I want to be clear here. I am not implying that living in the USA is making me a better person than somebody who lives in India. I am talking about measure of progress in the journey of life. I do genuinely think that the effort I have put in to make myself better is the primary reason that I am what I am today.

I went to the school nearby home. I absolutely had no idea of what the world beyond school looked like. I was a studious kid and all, I played a few sports and hung out with other 15 year olds doing stuff that only 15 year olds can. Yet, when it mattered, I was able to pull away from the bad company, focus and do well enough in the exams to earn a shot at an engineering college. College was nothing like life portrayed in movies that I grew up watching. There were a ton of kids who had better grades, a lot of them played sports at a different level and honestly put me to shame with their sense of fashion and knowledge of the world. Their interests in books, music and cuisines were varied and I was amazed at the confidence with which they wooed the ladies. At first I struggled to adapt, but soon I was able to pick up the pieces and used the time to transform myself as a person. My grades improved, I got better at sports, I developed a taste for music, books, and I found love. A final year flourish ensured that I had a job before I left college, had a university rank and an opportunity to go further ahead. You might be thinking, wait none of this is special. What is he touting about. Fair point. But what you need to understand is I had made the transition from doubting myself to knowing that I belonged. That feeling made all the difference at work. I was able to quickly master new things. I set myself to pursue various interests and put in the time to make myself better at many tings.

So when somebody comes and tells me that I was lucky enough to have these abilities I don’t take that statement very well. I think that I am being disrespected as my efforts were not being acknowledged. I tell them we are all created the same and the only thing that differentiates one from another is the effort. They do not seem to understand at all. I am upset and I decide to go take a walk. The rhythmic cadence helps me calm down. I get an overwhelming urge to write this experience. As I start to relive my personal moments of success I notice one thing. It is not always me on the podium, I am never alone. I am surrounded by my friends, by family and well wishers. In the pictures, some are even more happier than I am at my success. I am not so sure now. 

I put my thoughts on hold as I get ready to combat the daily routine of life. My kids school wants us to donate non-perishable foods to help homeless people. I had a hard time explaining what being homeless meant to my daughter. She was just not getting it. Where are their parents? What happened to their home? As I struggled to answer her questions, I couldn’t help think about the turns their lives must have taken. While there is a general sense of pity, that feeling disappears as you move on. It is said that you can have empathy only when you have experienced similar situations yourself. A person like me has not even entertained a thought about the same. So will I be in a position to really understand their plight? 

As I read about the protests gripping the nation about CAA – NRC, I am being told that I don’t have to worry about anything as I am  Hindu. Uncertainty is a looming threat for several workers in the private sector, but rest assured there is comfort in knowing that you have a home to go back to. To hear that my citizenship is assured in my country because of my religion is not essentially an argument that I am ready to bite. Clearly there are many factors that influence how a person’s life plays out.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book outliers looks to describe what makes special people special. It starts of being fun but then towards the end you are pretty stunned to see how generic themes like birth months, neighborhoods and even access to facilities help shape a person’s career. He did not belittle their personal skills and drive and all, but just points out that these people had access to opportunities that others did not. The outliers just maximized their opportunities. I couldn’t help but draw parallels here. I guess everyone really is a product of their own environment. I get it. Once you seem to accept this you will see the little things that enable you to be who you are. Here is a silent nod to all those around me who made me what i am today. Thank you.

Next time when someone tells me that I had lucky breaks I will still tell them that they were wrong. I was not lucky I was privileged.

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2019, Year that was

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Blog Opinion

The one about Identity

A few years ago, I had made note of an essay by Prof. Amartya Sen who talked about the need for humans to embrace broader identities. He thought that this would break barriers and promote the spirit of oneness around the world. The idea that I could shape my identity through my interests fascinated me. I have always felt a kinship with like minded people and was quite happy when I realized that these broader strokes could help me find my place in a global society. The internet and social media fueled my quest. Social media websites such as Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, Blogs, Podcasts made me see a side of things that I had never had the chance to experience before. My taste for global cuisines grew, I started reading a wide genre of books, I discovered music artists from around the globe.

While I don’t think that these experiments fundamentally changed me as person, it made me more aware of things that I had not really paid attention to before. And the more attention I paid, I started to become more biased to experiences that fascinated me. My online social media circle became limited to a carefully curated set of personalities that I found appealing . My  real world social interactions became increasingly limited to folks who subscribed to my view of ideals. On one hand, I wanted the people to see and hear about the things that I was discovering, and yet as I found out that many did not particularly care or had other interests that seemed unworthy to me I wanted to go be left alone. The struggle manifested itself as impatience,  frustration. There was no end to the list of things that could annoy me. I thought that I could control things by indulging in my own interests. The harder I tried, the less fascinating the experiences were. I started to feel like a disoriented cave diver in the dark waters. I had no sense of direction and I was swimming around in circles. I knew I had to reorient myself quickly. I have the privilege of having a very stable support system to get through some hard times. I knew I could rely on that to haul me out of my predicament.

One of the things that I had trouble agreeing to with many was the definition of Identity. What is one’s Identity? The answers that I could come were I am a father, a husband, a son, a brother, an immigrant, a programmer, a runner, a bibliophile, an Indian, a foodie. I could have gone on and added generic terms that described my nationality, my mother tongue, my sexuality but I am still not convinced that these helps define Me as a person. If you walk into a room full of people and call out people who match these identities I can assure you that there will be more than one who fits the bill. So how do these things uniquely identify me? Another thing that was bothering me was the obsession with “I”. Was I becoming a victim of my own ego?

The answers randomly seemed to come to me through the Principal Upanishads. The book talks about the importance of realizing the value of self. It seemed ironic at first that I would go back to the oldest known books to validate my thoughts. On the contrary this took me down a path of extreme learning and made me understand the nuances of Dharma (Righteousness), Artha (Wealth), Kama (Desire) and Moksha (Liberation). The key lessons were around the importance of senses and consciousness. The clarity of thought in these books amazed me. I learnt that while the senses helped focus on the outward aspects of life the consciousness allowed to focus on the inward aspects of life. When one questions oneself, then he invokes his consciousness and strives to balance the four phases. Ultimately, everyone pursues the four to varying degrees, and it is extremely important to understand that the others need not have the same spectrum of interests as you do. This was the ray of light I needed to reorient. While I still cannot answer the question as What am I, I am no longer weary and now I understand that to understand what I am I need to be what I am.

I come from the land of people where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high and where Knowledge is free. I do wish that others  wake up to such a heaven.

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2018, The Year That Was

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Blog

The one about Día de los Muertos

I recently watched the Pixar-Walt Disney movie Coco. The movie won several accolades and focuses on the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). The holiday serves as a day to offer prayers and to remember friends and family who have left us from the mortal world. I had the feeling that the subject was going to be a bit dark for a children’s animation movie but it was definitely a fascinating movie. The subject of death is not welcome topic of discussion in my home. The wife believes talking about the subject is inviting trouble and her idea is that this is a subject best left alone. It is not my intention is not to write a critique of the movie, or dwell on the subject of death by itself but there was this scene that made me feel vulnerable. In the scene, one of the characters in the nether world, longs for someone in the mortal realm to think about him, so that he does not drift into the nothingness of the dark. The scene was extremely poignant to me.

Family, friends, colleagues, associates and many strangers strive to form a web of connected circles around you. Some of these connections stay strong over your lifetime, some linger on the back of your mind as part of your experiences, and some stay forgotten. Yet, there is always a chance, for these connections to change and that is what makes our life so precious. However, with Death there is a certain finality to it. There is nothing that you can do to alter the connection as you are left only with their memories. Losing someone to death is an absolute life altering experience. You can never view the fabric of time with the same lens.

Losing my grandfather was one of the most difficult moments of my life. I felt as if I had lost the guide to my moral compass. I do have my friends and God to thank for helping me deal with the tough times. Death has brutally ended a friendship,  but also brought together a beautiful friendship that I cherish to this day. It has taught me several valuable lessons about the importance of goodness, kindness, and other virtues that I had not cared about earlier. I hope I have put some of these virtues to good, by helping others get through their tough times. I can only hope that I have lived up to the expectations of those who are no longer here, and through my actions and thoughts have managed to keep the bond as strong as it was when they were here. As long as life flows through me, I will cherish the memories, and the bonds between us. I know you all are there somewhere and in that i find solace.

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I, Read

I try to read as much as I can when I get a chance. The 45 minute bus ride that takes me home gives me ample time to get a few pages in, and the activity also keeps me away from unwanted conversations with other passengers. However, a few weeks ago I did get into a very interesting conversation with a fellow passenger who also happens to be the librarian at the Central library. As the conversation drifted to the favorite books and authors section, I realized my reading map was all over the place and I was unable to recollect several things about the books I had ever read. I decided to us this opportunity to catalog the books I had read, and throw in some data analytics to try squeeze some information out.

I have used Goodreads to catalog the books I have read in the recent years. I had also retroactively added many books from my college days into the website. I did not bother to add many of the Fairy tales, Famous Five, Secret Seven or the Hardy Boys books. Sure, those books set me up to become an active reader later in my life but I think it is safe to say that I have outgrown those books. I was able to export the Goodreads shelves to a spreadsheet and I had in my hands a definitive list of books I had read, and wanted to read.  The plan was to throw this dataset into an analytic platform such as spotfire, or powerBI and study my reading habits.

The First thing that bothered me about the list was the number of books I had read. Currently as of September 9th 2018 I have apparently read 275 books. (Excluding the books earlier seems stupid, now!) According to a study done by lithub the average reader reads 12 books a year. I averaged 8. I have always been shocked at how extraordinarily ordinary I have been my entire life. While the Goodreads website has a couple of useful tools like Reading Stats and Most Read authors I was disappointed to see that the exported list did not associate a book to a genre. I have started to read more in the recent years than in the past, so hopefully I will catch up to the average number.

I later found out the as Goodreads allows a book to be cataloged under multiple genres, it does not support the genre field in the exported list. Another challenge that i faced was to figure out how to keep my local copy updated with the books i update on the website. As i was pondering over the problem, a colleague showed me a pet project that he had done with Excel. I was actually surprised at the data processing and analysis ability Microsoft has added into excel in the recent years. No wonder, it still remains as the favorite go to tool for several engineers.

So i set up an excel spreadsheet that was connected to the “Exported” file from Goodreads. This allowed me to refresh my core dataset every time i had a new file from goodreads at the click of a button. I set up a secondary data set that mapped each book title from the exported dataset to a Genre. This i had to do manually, it was tedious but in about an hour i had mapped all the titles i had to a genre. The final step was to setup a “join” in excel that combined the titles along with the genres. Doing that gave me a final dataset of what i wanted. The books i had read, along with metadata like dates read, author names, genre and publication year. I had struck gold in terms of data analysis. I threw this information into the Pivot table of feature and this is what i found.

 

Fiction was by far what i read the most. I also apparently have a strong preference for Thrillers, Fantasy Fiction and also have a preference for books on philosophy, religion and biographies. Who knew? It seems that i have picked up on the range in the last few years. Hopefully, i will hear about more fantastic books and so will you in the near future. In the mean time do visit Literary Hub and Maria Popova’s blog. You might well be surprised. Happy Reading.

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Fitness Running

Half Marathon – Finisher

I finished the Half Marathon. March 3rd i join the rank of runners who have successfully completed a half-marathon. I finished the race in 2 hours and 47 minutes. Agreed, the last few miles were the hardest. There were moments when i just wanted to stop and go home. The pace i was running did not make it a physical challenge, but the monotonous nature of the activity was getting on my nerves towards the end. The volunteers and the crowd along the Woodlands roads were doing the best to cheer people along.

I wanted to finish the race no matter what and i had planned to run the race conservatively. I expected myself to let go towards the end, but in reality fear of not succeeding kept holding me back and i pretty much finished the race in the pace i started. I know i was not the last in my age group but i do know that i am in the bottom 10th %. The cramps disappeared after a banana and some juice.

A day later, my body has completely adjusted and i feel that i did not push my body enough during the race. I do actually feel bad that i did not finish faster. Anyways, this experience is already making me rethink my fitness goals.

Someday, i don’t know when. I will run a 10K in 60 minutes and also look to run a Half in 2.15. Rest now.

 

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Fitness Running

Woodlands Half Marathon Prep Weeks 7-10

At the end of Week 6, i was hobbling on the way back to the car. I was unable to walk without wincing. The pain subsided a lot as the day progressed. A preliminary diagnosis revealed that it was a minor case of Shin splints. The primary cause of this injury seemed to be worn out shoes. The Nike has been around for a couple of years now and i have logged more than 250 miles on it. I have made the mistake of using the running shoes for every day use because they are extremely comfortable. Running shoes have a “life” of about 300 miles. So all the walking and running did put a heavy work load on the Nike Pegasus 32 and hastened its demise. I spent a couple of days researching the various shoes and i zeroed in a couple of brands. The Brooks Ghost 10 and the ASICS (Boy! do they have a lot of models) seem to be the leading choice for most serious runners. My hunt for the shoes took me to various stores across the town. The online market has really wiped out the shoe stores (Luke’s Locker is closed!). Most stores i went in did not have the correct size or they would not have the color i wanted. As soon as tried on the Ghost i knew this was the shoe i wanted. Man! the comfort level of the shoe is something that i cannot describe. The Nike has the feel of wooden sandals when compared to the newer models.

Week 7 The first couple of runs with the new shoe was on the treadmill, i was able to do a 3 mile run and another 6 mile run without any problems. The pace was steady at about 11:37. I had to wait for a week before i could try the Shoe on the roads of Houston. I also understood the concept of stride slowly, the importance of running along a straight line is slowly sinking in. The runs on the treadmill are only tracked on the Garmin Connect and the Nike Website. Runkeeper seems to have issues in tracking the Treadmill runs.

Week 8 I did two runs of about 3 miles each and a single long run for 8 miles. This is the longest i have ever run. The 8 miler was along the bayou and the trail was so muddy that my shoes had about an inch of mud on it afterwards. Victor was laughing at me crying about my new shoes. But i am particular about things like that. The average pace has been around 12:30 minutes. The cadence has really improved to average consistently around 162 strikes per minute.

Week 9 I had such a busy week at work that i did not get any runs on the weekdays at all. I decided to bite the bullet and run 9 miles on the weekend. The plan was to lap the memorial park thrice. I now know that i can run 10 Kilometers without difficulty. The pace will not obviously be great but i reason i can do it in about 70 minutes. The strategy is to cover the remaining distance in intervals of 4:1 (Run 4 minutes and walk a minute). I tried this method for the 9 miler and turns out this approach makes me faster than if ran without stopping. I think i have to just swallow my ego and do this. The approach also does help with the recovery by a huge margin. I do have to give it to my buddy Victor the guy does not even stop! He has about 50 Kg’s on me. Respect!

Week 10: Just one more week before the race. It has been busy again and i am not getting enough time to put the runs during the week days. The wife and i ran on Friday morning, While she can run faster for short periods of time. She wants to slow down for the 5 K runs. I kept her company and we did 2.7 miles at a leisurely 13:01 pace. I will want to do one more of this distance and run another 10 miler before i wind up preparations for next week.

Stay Foolish.

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Fitness Running

Woodlands Half Marathon Prep Week 6: Advantage

For the first time in a few weeks, things seem to be in control. There seems to be a design in place for me to finish this. The weather gods were in an extreme good mood and Houston did enjoy the good show. I used the first two days of the week to recover from the long run last week. Wednesday Run. Everybody is back at work and that means there are more meetings during the work day. The meetings have been forcing me to stay late to finish up my pending tasks. I do plan to leave work early and then go out for the run around the residential area but that rarely happens so the treadmill it is. I do not want to test my eyesight or my courage in the dark. I have been running around the 12-minute pace for a quite some time now. I can manage a steady rhythm around that mark and I know for sure that this pace is at least two minutes faster from when i started a couple of years ago. I thought this was the right time to inject some pace into the training and ran 4-miles at a 11:37 pace. The average cadence stood at 164 spm.

I have been getting lazy with the strength training workouts, i use my off days to rest and get other stuff done rather than focus on improving the efficiency. This lethargy i am sure will be burn me soon. Friday Run. It was a beautiful day. I set off at noon, when the sun was high and the breeze gentle. I was able to match the pace from the early run (for the most part). I ran 4.25 miles at an average pace of 11:47. The average cadence stood at 162. The runs have started to get quicker, and i was all excited for the long run this weekend.

Victor, Lindsey and Ricardo wanted to bike on Sunday. So, I had to run alone on Sunday. I did not go to the Buffalo Bayou Park, instead I took the outback to the Seymour Lieberman trail @ Memorial Park. I think the memorial park is better for the knees and it is also easy on the eyes. If you know what I mean. But, the trail is only 2.9 miles which means you have to run laps if you want to run long distances. I am not a big fan of laps because you know what comes next and that wears me down pretty hard. The rains had softened the trail up nicely and i was able to run well for the first 4 miles. I did make the mistake of not carrying a bottle along with me. The park has plenty of water fountains along the trail, but i was not ready to trust the fountains yet. I stopped by the car to get a swig during the second lap. I have been using Gatorade regularly and the switch to water did not seem to work. I felt my legs cramp after mile 6. I thought i ran the 10 K in a record time, but the watch showed me that i had missed my best by 30 seconds. Either way walked the rest of the distance to finish the week with a 7-mile run at a 12:11 pace. The average cadence hovered at 160 in spite of me walking the last ½ mile.

I need to come up with a strategy to refuel during the race, the cramps are an indication of missing energy. I still have 4 weeks to figure that out but right now I need to address the searing pain that is cropping up in the left shin.

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Fitness Running

Woodlands Half Marathon Prep Week 5: Hold

I am through 50% of the training plan. The weather has started to deteriorate and I am expected to run 14 miles this week. It has been so cold that everything is frozen solid. This is the third time in the last month Houston has seen Snow/Ice. The highways have iced up so bad that we had to work from home on Tuesday and Wednesday. Sure Houston is no Erie, but the drivers are definitely worse. It is a good thing that the city shuts of most roads and schools so people can stay safe and warm in the comfort of their homes.

Wednesday Morning. The Sun is out today. The Ice has been thawing but the temperatures are expected to dip below freezing tonight. All the water from the meting ice is just expected to freeze again tonight. The sidewalks are still slippery and dangerous. I have no choice but to use the treadmill in the Gym again. To be honest the treadmill setup is not bad. I play the music out loud and also can use the privacy of the gym to be more carefree. The first run of the week was for 4 miles. The pace was 11:06 and the average cadence stood at 162 SPM. The fourth mile was the fastest i had run in a long time. I wrapped the session up with a 10 minute cool down routine. So far so good.

Thursday. The Ice/Snow mix has disappeared almost everywhere. I had to go back to work Today and stayed late at work to finish up a few things. I am planning to substitute the cross training session with a long walk. I just realized that the last two weeks slowdown has made me drop out of the 70K Garmin Activity Tracker challenge program. Those guys sure do have a high bar and have bumped me to the 55k program for the poor showing the last couple of weeks. 

Friday Run. I don’t think i am ready for the road yet, so I went back to the treadmill. I ran another 4 miles at a slower pace but did maintain a higher cadence throughout the run. The pace was 11:21 and i maintained an average cadence of 164. This is the first week that i have not thrown in a strength training routine in the mix. This might come back to bite me badly. But for now i am hoping that the walks are compensating enough.

Sunday Run.The Houston weather is back to being its unpredictable best. We have gone from -14 deg C to 23 deg C in two days. It is humid as hell. Ran along the bayou with Victor and Lindsey. I ran 5.6 miles in an Hour and 9 minutes. The pace was 12:21 and the average cadence was 161. It was an extremely difficult run but boy do those Tacos taste great after a run.