care, career, childhood, dance, mom, Mother's Day, ocean, Ocean Beach, passion, prioritizing, publishing, tradeoffs, writing

I used to fear that one day I’d be like my mom. Now, I look forward to that day.

Left: Mom and brother. Center: Me. Right: 1st-grade teacher and fruit of oil painting class.

“I don’t care if the Earth stops spinning, you have to sit down and practice piano for one hour.” This was one of my mom’s favorite statements (and one of my least favorite ones) when I was growing up. When I asked her why, she’d respond, “Because the sky is so high and you’re going to be married in the month of July.” Though I can assure you that my mom would care if the world ended, her statement expressed, in very few words, what she truly cared about, above all else: my brother and my success.  The extremity of her statement helped put it in perspective with (everything else in) the world.

As a child, my mom was an Bharatnatyam dancer. Though she, like I eventually did, attended weekly rehearsals, she and I did it for different reasons. I did it because my mom made me; my mom did it because she was passionate about pursuing the art form. When she was fifteen, my mom’s family moved from Kolkata to Delhi and she was forced to quit dance classes. A mix of other family priorities and the inability to find a good teacher in their new town stripped my mom of the one thing for which she cared so deeply.

But she wasn’t going to let this be the end.

Life went on, and thirty years ago, my mom moved to America. I was born four years later and the year after that, my mom found the perfect dance teacher she had been searching for back in Delhi. My mom didn’t let me stop her from dancing. She took me to her lessons, where I was propped up on a washing machine to watch her and receive a few cheerios between each set. Two years after I was born, my mom danced while pregnant with my brother.

Until we were in high school, my mom was a stay-at-home one. She gave up a professional career for one in raising her children the way she felt was best. She prepared us for vocabulary quizzes, watched us do our homework and drove us to an ever-growing list of extracurricular activities from piano to soccer to dance to oil painting to singing lessons to the rest of the superset.

And still, somehow, she continued dancing.

When I was ten and my brother was seven, my mom, at age thirty-seven, performed her Arangetram. In Indian Classical Dance, the Arangetram is a dancer’s first official solo dance recital and demonstrates a significant achievement in the art. It follows a specific two-hour format.

Her longtime dream finally came true.

Three weeks ago, I received my first rejection letter from a children’s book publisher. While the letter itself is a nice one (“Presents an all-too-common story in such a unique way, and with a really heartwarming message at its core…” “…grateful for the chance to consider it”), the overall message of the letter was not the one I wanted to hear (“…unfortunately with our relatively small list we’re unable to take it on at this time”).

The rejection has been difficult for me. I initially couldn’t help but question the worth it-ness of this thing that I don’t have to do. While I care deeply about the manuscript and publication, I was overwhelmed with what I gave up by means of other activities, random events, relaxation and time with friends in order to create it. I reminded myself that this is what it will look like, for every future manuscript, at every phase of my life.

Ocean Beach at sunset

Still grappling with the reality, last Monday, I went to the ocean in search of myself. It was a simple scene. After a while, it became clear to me that I needed to create a simple scene for my life. It’s impossible to care for — to put the same amount of time and effort into — everything. I forced myself to determine what five things in this world I care about most, an exercise inspired by a wise friend. Five because I want to be able to hold them in one hand. To clench them tightly in one fist. What was I willing to give up? What does my life — my happiness and my personal sense of success — require? I didn’t leave until I was happy with the list, with a still to-be-determined order or priority:

  • Family + closest friends
  • Health
  • Job
  • Writing
  • Learning

Given a choice between something else and something on the list I know that I care more about the thing on the list. And in this case, it means submitting to another publisher, and another and another for however many times is necessary for this manuscript, and for each manuscript.
What makes my mom’s realized dream an inspiring one is that it wasn’t realized fortuitously. There was no unforeseeable “lucky break,” no industry bubble, no market boom. Her dream came true because she, in her mid-twenties, determined what few things in this world she truly cared about. She didn’t have to dance. She didn’t have to commit her children to a slew of activities. She didn’t have to quit her job. She made big, scary trade offs. And because she chose the right things, the ones that mattered the most to her, she was able to persevere. She continues to dance, and in fact, my brother and I will watch her perform in a show next weekend.
This Mother’s Day, I’m thankful for a lady who has not only cared for me above so much else, but who also, maybe more importantly, has taught me how to care about the special things in my life.

balance, dance, exercise, growing up, rosa parks, Steve Jobs, twenty-something

“Don’t confuse symmetry with balance.” -Tom Robbins

If you’ve ever watched a toddler try to walk across a room, you know that it’s a comical scene. As this new walker waddles the distance, each step is taken with extreme caution and deliberate thought. The child is hilariously focused on matching each right-step with the left. Once in a while, he’ll get too ambitious and try to run, which of course, lands him on the floor with that deer-in-headlights acceptance of inevitability. Then it’s back up again to reinstate the purposeful balance.

As we walked to dinner two nights ago, my brother and I discussed Steve Jobs’ early-day diets and their possible link with the pancreatic cancer that ended his life. Now I have way too many friends in med school to speculate on this topic of which I know very little, but I do have the Isaacson-researched account of Steve’s illness. After experimenting with 2-day fruit fasts, Steve in his self-diagnosed “typical nutso way” started fasting for weeks or more. While these fasts are meant to detoxify, they can actually do long-term harm. Though these fasts may not cause cancer, they overwork the pancreas causing osteoporosis or even heart failure.

When I first met him a few years ago, I recognized that one of my friends had the most stringent exercise and diet regimens I had ever witnessed. In fact, I was sometimes embarrassed to eat in front of him or see him at the gym for fear of his judgment. A few months ago, I learned that he was on crutches. What happened?!” I asked, imagining some freak-accident involving mountain climbing or a marathon race. “My knee had been bothering me for a year. I was just ignoring it.” Needless to say, being on crutches, away from what he loved to do most (be active) has left him with an abundance of time to introspect. Recently, he told me, “You know, I’ve realized I went way to far with my exercising. I used to work out every single day, even when I didn’t feel like I could. Even when a day of rest would have been more beneficial to me.”

Yesterday, my friend and I were strolling to the park. “Today is so gorgeous,” she said as she took in the moment. “What am I doing with my life?” I asked as I crumbled into a slew of questions and worries about every aspect of my life. My friend didn’t interrupt. I guess she has known me long enough to just let me get everything out before trying to knock any sense into me. When I finally paused for a breath, she responded matter-of-factly, “I think you need to start writing again. Now that you’re done with your book you have too much time to think.” “Maybe you’re right.” “I’m definitely right.”

Later in the evening, I went to a dance show called “Courage.” Deeply moved by the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the dancer choreographed an entire show based on human resilience, from Rosa Parks’ struggle with segregation to an ancient temple dancer’s determination to maintain the purity of her art against corruption. In what turned out to be a somewhat metaphysical representation of the theme, I found the show to be a powerful demonstration of courage not because of the stories depicted, but because of the internal and external balance the dancer exuded as she swept across the stage. At some level, courage is the ability to restore balance.

One of the most difficult aspects of young adulthood is finding your own balance, regardless of artificial, semantic balance around you. Semantic balances like “a black world and a white world,” “drive and laziness,” or “fruits and fat.” We want so badly to sprint towards that word with the positive connotation, but it’s when we achieve inner balance that we will find ourselves enveloped with the courage to pursue what we believe to be meaningful and the resilience to fight back against what we don’t believe in. Forget sprinting. Go forth and teach yourself how to walk again.

appearances, beauty, dance, first impressions, iPhone, Mini Cooper

“For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.” – Steve Jobs

In case you’ve been wondering since my last post, I don’t miss having an iPhone 5. When I went to restore my apps, pictures, and data onto my iPhone 4S device, the transfer went smoothly. In fact, all my apps were automatically downloaded into the right folders. If the screen of my 4S weren’t a different size (and if the audio jack wasn’t at the top of the phone), I wouldn’t even notice that I was using a different phone. 
Around the time that I downgraded my phone, I purchased a MacBook Air (you win some, you lose some). Within ten minutes of turning it on for the first time, I was typing, business at usual. Almost everything I do on my computer is stored within browsers, my Mac Apps like Evernote or Photoshop, and in DropBox. Most of the time I forget that I have a new snazzy computer, that is, until I’m halfway to a coffee shop and suddenly doubt whether I’ve brought my laptop because my bag is so light.
A little less than two weeks ago, a member of the Corporate Communications team at my former company (crazy! I have a former company!) asked to film me for a video about products employees love. I chose my Mini Cooper. The videographer and I walked to my car in the parking lot. She set up her tripod then looked at me. “Okay, go for it. Just talk about why you love it.” “Can I practice a couple times? I haven’t thought about what to say.” “Don’t worry about it. Just talk, we’ll pick out some snippets.” 
A quick side-confession which will likely upset all male and even some female readers: I decided to buy my Mini before I even test drove it. My decision was based solely on the way it looked. Driving around my parents’ elephant SUVs in high school, despite how expensive they were, had been less than pleasant for me. I feared for my life and that of others when I drove them — they were simply too large for me to feel like I was in control. 
Back to extemporizing my script. As I looked into the camera, I talked about how sitting in my car makes me feel like I’m at a fun party, no matter what traffic is like. About how the number of other Minis on the road gives me the sense of being part of a safe community on the road. About how, simply put, my Mini makes me love driving. 
After filming the segment, I went back to my desk to realize that I had not said anything about the way the car looks. I was surprised that its cute stature was not part of my unconscious reasons for loving it. And now, as I sit here reflecting on my old and new tech gadgets, I’m realizing it’s much of the same. It’s what they can accomplish for me that’s more noteworthy than how they look.
The day it was launched, my friend sent me a link to the Dove Real Beauty Sketches video. As I sat there watching, I realized that we as individuals have ultimate power in determining how others see us. 
What’s interesting to me is that my disregard for the way products look does not translate into my assessment of my own appearance. For most of my life, I have been self-conscious about my body. Love handles and thighs, specifically. It made me shy away from certain social activities, like pool parties or going to the beach. Part of this insecurity stems from my being a dancer. Depending on the performance, my audiences had up to two hours to stare at my body. Over the last two years, I’ve toned down these areas. Most surprising to me was that attaining this goal didn’t change anything about my personality or how I felt as a person. When I think about myself, I don’t imagine anything different from how I looked in say my “fatter thigh” days. And neither friends nor strangers treat me any differently. 
If you are a human reading this, it’s likely that you too have your own insecurities. Pressure that you put on yourself to look and act a certain way. Outside of being generally healthy, realize that feeling excessively insecure about yourself will only make you less attractive as a social companion. For the most part, even subconscious first impressions are based on facial expressions and body language — not hair length or tummy fat. When a slightly shorter and fatter phone can do all the same things as its taller and skinnier counterpart, and just a little less efficiently, looks really aren’t everything. So long as you remain being the essence that is you, your closest companions will never feel a need to upgrade you.
control, dance, Hinduism, natural disaster, psychology, Sandy, technology

Dancing in the dark ’til the tune ends

It was the summer after sixth grade and I was in India with my family for one of our routine trips. This particular trip, however, I had been asked to put on a thirty-minute solo classical dance performance at my cousin’s wedding. My mom is a dancer herself, so growing up, dance practice for me doubled as your average mother-daughter bickering session. Now add the balmy humidity of a Chennai summer into the mix, and you might guess why I was elated when the wedding day finally came around. I had put in long hours and was ready for a real summer vacation.

The morning ceremonies seemed to inch by and after what felt like an eternity, it was time for me to ascend the stage. I made a graceful entrance from the side wing which cued the music to begin. The performance kicked off smoothly and at the ten-minute mark I realized that I was truly enjoying myself. It was that point where you suddenly come back into consciousness after having been lost in performing. Surrendered to muscle memory. I did a couple more steps and then out of nowhere, the music just stopped. Hearing my mom’s classic dance advice (even if the world stops spinning, you keep performing) ring through my head, I continued on for a few more seconds. As if it were stolen from some scary movie, the lights flickered twice then went completely black. Unable to see into the audience for my mom to save me, I stood there, alone on stage, at a loss.

For the weeks leading up to the performance, my mom and teacher had mentally and physically prepared me for uncountable varieties of undesirable situations: audience distractions, heat, underwhelming audience, forgetting steps, being too tired…But they had not anticipated or planned for a blackout (And who would?). This was just unlucky. As if the pressure of being an American performing South Indian Classical dance in South India wasn’t enough, I now felt doubly vulnerable. I could feel my ears throbbing and my lip quivering. Lucky for me, it was pitch black. My performance had been ruined. The hours of rehearsal had gone down the drain.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to video record a 1-hour conference then share it with a broader team. At the conclusion of the meeting, I went to dump the video into my Public Dropbox. The file was too large. Settling for my second option, I tried uploading the video to YouTube. There too, either the size of the file or my internet connection (or both) battled and won against me. Several hours and options passed and I found myself at the end of the work day with a missed deadline of one minute ago. That evening, I finally came up with a solution that would require me to upload the video in three separate parts to Box. I started the upload process at 8 PM. Two hours later, the first video upload was complete. I started the second one at 10 and went to sleep about an hour after. I then woke up naturally every hour, on the hour to check the status of my uploads. Between the hours, I was dreaming about the upload (not even remotely joking).

At 3 in the morning, disaster struck: the upload which had been 95% complete at 2 AM had failed, likely due to some edge case communication error. I restarted the process. With the second file upload complete at 5 AM, I headed to work where I left the third and final video uploading while I went to the gym. In what felt like the epic completion to an impossible race, I reached 100% and 3 of 3 videos uploaded at 7:55 just as our director walked into his office. I breathed a sigh of relief and started with my real work.

If I’ve been able to communicate even half of the stress and labor that went into what I would imagine should be a pretty simple task involving the “cloud,” you might share my frustration and disappointment when my director was unable to view the files on his computer for whatever reason and instead ended up contacting our company tech support to host the videos on an enterprise video-hosting site. What a complete waste of time. I can’t believe I literally lost sleep over this I thought to myself. I blamed myself for failing at a simple task, when in reality, I had truly done everything in my control (and even some things that were out of my control) to follow through.

We are living in a world where technology is continually advancing and in turn becoming increasingly embedded in our day to day lives. While this comes with a lot of good, the fundamental problem, in my opinion, is that we are unable to separate technology and that which we can control from that which we cannot. For example, extreme heat causing a power failure. The worst part being that modern technology has led us to falsely believe that we have control over most everything around us, which in fact, is far from the truth.Last weekend, my parents were involved with a religious ceremony of sorts. Part of the ceremony included serving a feast to the Hindu Gods. The act of serving food on a plate allocated to a divine spirit was interesting to think about (especially when the logical, realistic side of you knows that the food is actually going to be thrown away or eaten by a person in the room). A rarely-used muscle is flexed when you consider the philosophy of a supernatural being, one that could be bigger than life and outside human control, when we are so accustomed to thinking about the concrete. What we know. Reality.

This morning, I learned via this article in The Daily Pennsylvanian that a girl from my graduating class is a Hurricane Sandy casualty after her home was struck by a falling tree. I just sat there, lost in the thought of a truly, purely natural disaster. So sad, for lack of a better word, for her family and friends. It’s natural occurrences like these — earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes — that define the phrase “we’re only human.” This poor girl was a powerless victim with little to no warning or control over the fate she would suffer. A notion that we, as thriving, striving individuals so rarely recognize or accept.

It would be pretty depressing to resign ourselves to beings pawns in nature’s chess game. And I’m not at all encouraging us to move in this direction. But as we continue our trek to this “Brave New World,” it will do us good to reflect on our lives once in a while. Push yourself to engage and perform at the best of your ability, with whatever you truly have control. But past that, we have no choice but to let life take it’s course. The sooner that we can learn to accept this, the more freely and fully we can live our lives. Because you know, there is nothing quite so beautiful, quite so exhilarating, as dancing in the dark.

commitment, dance, dedication, piano, real world, success

It’s quite clear that I’m stuck here

I was eight years old when I first started learning piano. I had already been involved in several other activities since I the ripe age of five, but, over the course of those three years, they had lost their novelty (no disrespect, I’m just telling it how I saw it, as a mature and sophisticated eight-year-old). Convinced that learning piano would be something new, exciting and different, I begged my parents to put me into class. Begged. They didn’t have a dog yet but having a daughter literally begging at their feet probably made them feel like they did.

It was a couple months by the time my parents finally obliged. They found me a nice Russian piano teacher who no doubt, has tremendous talent. She was also a slave driver (figuratively, no need to notify the authorities). What followed was years of sweat, fear, tears, and stress. I used to have rehearsals on Wednesdays at 6 PM and let me tell you, for ten years, Wednesday was my least favorite day of the week. The prospect of Wednesday was paralyzing. I dreaded 3:30 PM, which signaled the end of the school day and the beginning of my two-hour cram session before going to class, no matter how much I had practiced during the week. I spent numerous Tuesday evenings choosing piano practice over exam preparation. At 24, I can honestly say that so far, nothing in my life, not the SAT, not job interviews, not final exams, nothing has been as stressful as my my past life as a student of this particular piano studio.

Piano was the first real thing in my life that felt like a binding commitment. There were monetary repercussions for missing lessons (and let’s just say that my parents weren’t exactly okay with making charitable donations to a well-off Russian Maestro), requirements to perform in quarterly recitals, and annual piano exams. As you can imagine, it stopped being fun very early on. And neither my parents nor my ego gave me the option to quit.

Not to be dramatic, but my experience with piano has deeply affected the way I approach potential commitments in my life, be it something big like a job or a friendship or even something seemingly inconsequential, like plans for the weekend. I fear that the second I commit, the fun, and more importantly, my ability to be in control, will disappear. With commitment, the light-hearted, fluffy excitement of an opportunity or possibility is immediately transformed into an imposing burden. And my moral opposition to shirking commitment does not help the case.

At the end of my senior year of high school, I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I was going to be attending college two thousand miles away, suggesting a natural end to my piano lessons. To encapsulate my ten years of hard work, I, for the first time, put on a recital for my friends and family. Previous recitals had been for members of the piano studio or panels of judges.

I still remember that recital. I walked up to the piano, took a bow, adjusted the bench, and took a seat. I took a quick breath, lifted my hands, then released my fingers onto the keyboard. They began flying. My body swayed with the music, melodies and harmonies swirled through the theater, and I for the first time in many years, was truly playing for fun. It was both liberating and rewarding.

A couple years ago, my mom and I got into an interesting debate. Coming from a culture where a husband and wife may meet on the day of their wedding, potentially only sharing one common goal of a successful marriage, my mom is very dubious of the world of dating. It doesn’t make sense to just go around dating fifty people. If you always have the option to leave, you’ll be less inclined to making any one relationship work. You’ll always be convinced that there is better out there. Valid, but room for argument (though not in this particular post). I bring up this conversation only to emphasize the power and importance of commitment. Not, necessarily to a person, as is the case with dating, but commitment to values, outcomes, goals, beliefs, and in general, your success and happiness.

A senior leader at my company put it best. We were discussing my rotational program, in which for two years, associates move into new roles every six months. The biggest mistake you can make is to act as if you’re shopping. If, in each role you think, Oh well, I’m just experimenting. I’m going to be out of here soon anyway, you’ll never feel the need to learn and improve. And at the end of the two years, you’ll have nothing to show for it.

On my college dance team, I coined the term “commit” for dance moves (seriously, talk about lasting impact). For each year’s repertoire, we incorporated a few modern and, for lack of a different word, different styles. Learning choreography for these pieces often required movements or poses that felt unnatural. The team would stand behind the choreographer walking through sequences. To be blunt, you’d feel like an idiot. But then, as you learned the piece, when you really put your all into each movement, imagined yourself on stage, in costume, performing, and essentially lost your body in the dance, it was almost impossible to look anything but glamorous.

As difficult as it is to admit (this is one of those “mom was right” moments in public), it was the feeling of being tied to the piano, the seemingly “signed in blood” commitment, that gave me no chance but to practice and become a rather decent piano player. I am almost positive that had I felt like I had the option to quit at any time, I wouldn’t have had the desire or motivation to rehearse my heart out.

Of course, I am not saying that we go through life feeling as if every decision we make is unchangeable. Not only is that unrealistic and naive, but it would also make me a hypocrite. But reflect on each potential commitment to be sure that it is something or someone really important and true to you. That, if going through with the commitment means jumping through hoops of fire, you’re willing. That you won’t spend more time finding the easy way out. Because the second you tell yourself that something is temporary, that it doesn’t matter, that you can always get out of it, you compromise your potential. You’re less invested. And it shows. I’ve tracked these repercussions in my own mindset shifts. The mediocrity that comes with irresolution is relentless.

So yes, commitment is stifling. The word even feels a bit binding and restrictive. Those poor vowels are completely trapped between harsh consonants. But I’ve begun to realize that commitment doesn’t need to be fear-inducing. Commit to being happy in all regards. Commit to learning and exploring. Commit to enriching, once-in-a-lifetime type experiences. Paradoxically, this is the only way to free your mind, to grow as a person, and to soar through life.