Antidote to an off-day

Some days are just meant for saying “Thanks, Day,” and getting into bed.

Once there, pick up a favourite book and read it again because it will take you down the same memory lane as the last time you read it and were in a good mood. Snuggle under the sheets, feeling protected in your own soft cotton womb. Stretch your arm and leg across the bed to the cool side and feel renewed. Close your eyes and let the jumble of things fall away.

Sweet tomorrow, just a few hours away.


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You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but a new dog can teach you new ways

Sunday evening, the grocery store was crowded, as expected. I was in a tightly packed line, waiting to check out. All of a sudden, chaos erupted as a woman squealed. People pushed each other to step out of the away, shoppers further off stopped what they were doing to look in curiosity. The woman looked desperately around her, searching for whatever had startled her.

We found the culprit very quickly because he was right there. A puppy dog was running between a sea of legs, his tail wagging happily. He moved around cheerfully, trying to make friends among the strangers. He was unaware of the consternation with which some folks were now looking at him nor the shock on the woman’s face at his unruly behaviour.

Soon enough, his owner got hold of him, looking apologetically at the crowd as he pulled the puppy out of the store. The puppy looked confused. Why was he being dragged away from this wonderful place, his face said. However, he allowed himself to be taken out, trusting his owner. Order restored itself, the humdrum of grocery lines regained itself, and we went back to the banality of standing in line and paying for our groceries when it was our turn.

As I walked out, I saw the puppy. He was chained to a bike rack, sitting on his haunches, looking inside for his owner and probably at the people that were milling in the grocery store. He had a relaxed, friendly expression on his face. Ears were up, eyes were soft. He looked curiously, openly at the world around him. What struck me most was the complete absence of the previous episode. No guilt, no remorse, no lingering self-reproach.

It made me think about how we humans, by contrast, tend to dwell on stuff, especially the painful, embarrassing, painful stuff. We mull over it, chew on it endlessly, and refuse to let it go as we parse it and analyse it to groan-inducing, excruciating detail. We talk about it, endlessly, in a recurring loop like Groundhog Day.

Why? That moment is gone. A new moment is here. It is all that deserves our attention. The puppy dog seems to get it. We could learn from it.

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First Citizens

It seems this is prize-awarding season. The latest is the slew of awards given out by the Nobel Committee for the leading contributors in different disciplines. I recently wrote about Richard Thaler receiving the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on behavioural economics. Well-deserved, he has devoted his life to making these groundbreaking contributions to the field of economics. The other recipients, too, are notable for the exceptional value they add to their technical fields.

Why don’t we have prizes for people who behave like great human beings? Not experts in a science or discipline. Simply, exemplary citizens, everyday people who demonstrate outstanding civic sense in regular life. I call them First Citizens.

They could be people like the gentleman in 602B who paid for the society watchman’s daughter’s education, so that she is now going to the world-acclaimed IIT and will lead a different, richer life than her parents. Or, the society watchman who checks in on the old lady on the 4th floor, knowing she’s alone and might be in need of something. Or, the school kids that feed a hungry stray dog. These are people that don’t turn away. They do the humane thing.

More and more, we need a light to be shone on such examples. We need to see such behaviour modeled, so that those around can see what is the right thing to do when confronted with the myriad difficult situations that exist these days. I suspect many of us don’t even know what is the civic thing to do, how to go about it, or why it should even be done. Instead, we see examples of poor behaviour, what NOT to do or say. This is what dominates the news or the talk shows or the daily soaps and serials. Of course, there’s always the argument of taking the easy way out – ignore it, why bother, and other lazy justifications. In a way, we are getting nudged towards apathy, cruelty, selfishness and all the other negative virtues by the way we are bombarded by bad news and stories of poor actions.

There are many folks, however, that do the right thing, from choice. They’re scattered throughout the land, which is reassuring. They do what they do without recognition, and often, in the face of ridicule or even resistance. I think they should be applauded, they should be feted so that society gets a strong cue of what is desirable behaviour and our children learn firsthand what good neighbourly behaviour is like. The proverbial nudge should be of this nature – good stuff breeds more good stuff because it leaves an imprint and makes it feel like this is the normal thing to do.

First Citizens. First because they are the best of the community. First because they lead the way to the kind of world we should be creating rather than the one we submit to tolerate.


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Who’s the beggar, really?

The old man showed up one day on my street, out of the blue. Hunched, a wispy beard reaching down his chin, he carefully laid out his wares on the footpath. A few bottles, a big box, a smaller box, arranged in symmetry to form a neat square around him.

At first, I wasn’t sure what he was doing. Was he selling these random items? There was a tin can as well. Was he a beggar? Nothing about him said that. Yes, he was wearing what seemed like old, hand-me-down clothes. He had a jacket over them, similar to street folks that have to fend against the wind and cold. And he was squatting on the space, in the manner of one who has claimed this as his temporary parking spot, not having anywhere else to go.

Still, I was puzzled. He looked busy, which most homeless people don’t look like. Indeed, he was thoroughly occupied with setting up his space. Rushed office workers and college students walked past him, throwing a lazy glance without slowing down. He didn’t notice any of them. Head down, he went about his business. Things were arranged just so, orderly and tidy.

He didn’t seem like a homeless bum. But then what was he doing on the footpath? I could not make sense. As I passed him, I snuck a look at the tin can and saw that it contained some notes. Okay, so he was a beggar. I walked on, nonchalant on the outside, making a vow to drop some money when I had a chance.

The next morning, I saw him unpacking the things from the previous night to again set up his display for the day. I started to approach him, money in my fist. At that instant, he looked up, right at me. I was startled and slowed a bit. And then he broke into a wide, toothy grin, like he recognized me, like we were old friends and he was so pleased to see me. I couldn’t help but grin back. After all, it is not often that I get such an open, inviting greeting.

He reached out his hand, eagerly, wishing me a good morning, with the greatest delight etched on his wrinkled face. Abashed, I still managed to reach out and we shook hands. I was, again, taken aback; I had not been expecting to shake hands with him. I was only planning to offer some aid, in the form of loose change, keeping a sanitized distance with no physical contact or any other interaction. Instead, here I was, feeling a soft hand clasping mine with friendliness. His face searched mine, lighting up in recognition, of what, I don’t know. When I finally dropped the money in his tin can, he thanked me, with the same beaming smile.

The following day, I gave him a bag carrying a sweatshirt and a woolen hat, since it was starting to get cold. He accepted the bag and patted me on the back by way of saying thanks. He didn’t even look inside, already expressing what felt like a sincere gratitude for whatever I had chosen to give him. That night, he was sleeping when I walked past, on my way home from work. He was wearing the sweatshirt. I felt a tingle of pleasure on seeing this; I was glad it was keeping him warm.

I look forward to seeing this old man every morning. He looks happy, despite his circumstances suggesting he should be anything but. I have seen people with far more things than him with the sourest expressions sitting on their faces and the meanest words coming out of their mouths. On days, I am a grumpy louse, complaining about inconsequential things. We are supposedly the ones that are doing well in life, the achievers, leaders, go-getters. However, I will venture to say that this old man is so far ahead of all of us. I get the feeling that he is content in his present, seeing it for everything that it is and feeling the joy of every ordinary moment. That makes him the richest, most accomplished man on earth.

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Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for Economics 2017! (and why you should care)

Why do you eat junk food even though you know it’s bad for you?

Why don’t you save money even though it will set you up for a great retirement?

Why do you buy the more expensive wine even though you actually like the taste of the cheap version?

Why do you go to the crowded food stall even though another one is next to it, empty?

Why do you finally click on the article after seeing its fifth post on your feed, even though you didn’t think it was interesting the first time?

Richard Thaler will help you answer all these questions, and all the other ones you’re too embarrassed to admit.  Behavioural economics, the domain over which he is master, scrutinizes the fundamental assumption of economics, that humans are rational beings. It forces economists to admit and accept that people make decisions that are irrational and that’s just the way it is.

Ever felt jealously possessive of a creative piece of work – a drawing, a sculpture, even a powerpoint slide – and refused to give it up even though all the evidence and feedback said it was not good? Behavioural economics revealed that we see greater value in things we create.

Or, ever made a well thought-through decision in a calm state of mind that went out the window as soon as you got excited? Behavioural economics again, showing how rational decisions get overthrown quite easily if you make minor, seemingly insignificant changes to your surroundings.

What about not quitting smoking/ not losing weight/ not exercising? Behavioural economics can explain this too (it’s too far out in time, that’s why we don’t take the task seriously now).

I studied economics in college and kind of hated it. I wish behavioural economics had been around at that time, I’m pretty sure I would have fallen in love instead and done a PhD.


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“Give” ideas for Diwali, Christmas and other festivals

It’s festival season all over the world, with some of the most commercial festivals cropping up soon. I love this season because it encourages us to think of our friends and families; in a world that is increasingly shrinking inwards and become insular, expanding outward to our communities is a welcome act.

Unfortunately, the commercial-ness of some of the festivals is getting in the way of connecting with others. Gifts, in nicely wrapped boxes, used to be a nice way to show we care; they have become abused and mutated into a short cut when we can’t find time and energy. Gifting has also become expensive, with a competition to outdo others and even our own previous record. The act remains, the point is lost.

The importance of giving comes back to the giver too. As I wrote about in a previous blogpost, giving makes us happy because it is an occasion when we are in synch with the world. As we lead more hectic, stressful, burnt out lives, finding joy becomes more critical. Giving, as I show below, can be done in ways that are accessible, don’t get in the way of life (not too much, anyway), and can bestow tremendous joy for the giver as well as the receiver, more than a typical gift will do.

To bring back the true spirit of gifting, which is giving of our time, energy and love to friends, family and wider community, here are a few ideas for this year’s festive season.

Give blood.

It makes a difference, sometimes the difference between life and death for a mother’s son, a daughter’s father, a husband’s wife, a friend’s friend.

Recently, I saw the coverage of the horrible Las Vegas shootout massacre. The day after, local residents were pouring in to donate their blood. Amidst the overwhelming chaos, everyday folks kept coming in and offering their blood to help save strangers. On its own, this gesture might feel small, even insignificant. What can a bag of blood do when the problem is so big?

A lot. Hundreds of people were injured, and the individual bags of blood kept them alive and helped them recover.

We don’t need a massacre attack to give blood. Every day, people are looking for a saviour, in the form of a blood donor. It’s an easy way to be a hero. How much bigger a gift can you give than life to someone?

Spend your time with old people.

When we’re young, we have friends and family around us, a bustling beehive of conversations, fights, make-up sessions, parties and all the fun activities our bodies and our social circle permit. We are in the prime of life, we are the center of attraction for the world.

Old people, however, are the forgotten. They’ve been moved to the sidelines as a newer, shinier generation steps forward. The simple progression of time and aging means they lose their own social network to death, thinning out until they’ve out-survived many of their peers. They literally have no one to talk to. It gets lonely.

There are many that have carved out a new life, a second innings, if you will. In places like Japan, where the aged are everywhere, society has shifted to keep them more in the center than others. However, there are many other old folks who find themselves left behind; they’ve not prepared for this part of life, and now they’re on their own. Whether at an old folks’ home or in their own private homes, they feel lost at sea without any anchor.

Your casual visit to them cheers them up in a way no bow-tied box can. It leaves them with fodder to chew on for days after the visit, the happy smile lingering on the face at recollections of the visit.

Look at them, make them feel seen. Listen to them, so they feel heard. These small acts do a huge service to the elderly – they acknowledge them as worthwhile and interesting human beings.

And they are, if you can show the patience to see and hear them. They’ve got a perspective on the world at a time when you weren’t born – where will you get such firsthand historical accounts? They’ve lived many more ups and downs than you – who else can give you a perspective on how to survive life? They’ve seen you when you were a new-born – who else can tell you what you were like before you were able to see yourself?

Old people are a treasure trove of stories and histories. They’ll give this to you in exchange for a small price, your time and attention. It’s a good deal.

Take kids to a cultural show.

You’ll have an impact on them that will stay for the rest of their lives.

One of the most impressionable experiences in my life was when I was taken to a broadway show and then the famous jazz club, The Blue Note, in New York City when I was a freshman in college. I had never seen anything like it before, I was blown away. I only got to experience it because the father of a school friend decided to take a bunch of us for a day out in NYC.

I don’t think he realises what he did that day. I saw a world unfold in front of my wide eyes that showed me exciting dimensions to life that I wasn’t even aware of. Incredible heights of song and dance, a community of people where THIS was the natural style of living, and, most importantly, a dedication to the stuff that makes us humans beyond the act of survival and doing the prescribed thing. I saw people interacting with each other freely and openly, something I had not grown up with. The singer at the Blue Note that evening was a lady in her 60s or even 70s who looked spectacular: sequinned long dress, coiffed hair and heavy make-up. She rolled out those songs like smoky wisps of air. In between, she bantered in her husky voice with the audience and the jazz band, laughing throatily before launching into another jazz tune. I loved her. It has been over 20 years since I was there, and I can still see her, the stage lights glistening magnificently on her.

What did this do to me? It showed me that there are different ways of living life, that there are avenues to be discovered, where others have already congregated and you will not be alone. In no small measure, however indirectly, this experience injected confidence in me to follow my own path because I saw others doing it.

Take kids out to stuff like this, you never know what stays with them and shapes their lives.

Cook for your friends.

The act of eating is so primal, it is essential to our survival. Eating well is essential to not just surviving but thriving.

That’s why the act of feeding is so significant. You can nourish the soul, in addition to the body. Our feelings are transferred through food, and when we cook lovingly for people we care about, that love reaches them.

One of my favourite holidays ever is the American Thanksgiving. It is wholly dedicated to bringing family and friends together around a table of food. A turkey sits in the center, and the culture of Thanksgiving exists on stories of turkeys getting burnt, lumpy gravy, and forgotten cranberry sauce, in addition to the chaotic logistics of seating inordinately more people than the dining room was built for and who sits on the kiddies’ table vs the adults table. Person after person rings the doorbell and enters with loud greetings and laughs, with doors getting hastily shut to keep the cold air out.

One Thanksgiving, I had some friends from graduate school over to my flat in Boston. We had American representation but most of the crowd was international. In other words, minimal expertise in cooking Thanksgiving fare. It was a hilarious disaster, with a large turkey that was given enough time to bake and still refused to cooperate. Unsure, my Italian friend G. and I made the executive decision to carve up the turkey and pan fry it to confirm it was cooked. The bird still refused to let go of its pink hue. We were flummoxed, the milling group in the other rooms was getting hungry, and so, in order to avoid a total flop show, we served a scant few pieces of turkey we were convinced were ready for consumption, with loads of side servings (stuffing, cranberries, salad, bread, beans, pumpkin pie) and even more wine. It was the best Thanksgiving ever, and entirely due to the shared act of cooking and eating.

Cooking parties are a guaranteed good time, much better than ordering in food or eating out. It’s more time and effort, which is your gift. The reward is more than commensurate.

Write letters.

We don’t write letters anymore, which makes them all the more unique and capable of delighting. It is a gratifying feeling to receive a letter that shows thoughtfulness – thoughtful of you the recipient, and thoughtful of the sender, who has chosen to make time to consider what to write.

Most important to me, however, is the fact that a letter reflects a writer who is willing to share his or her feelings with you about what is going on in their lives. Not just willing, reaching out to connect with you by opening up. We don’t share so openly anymore; emails, text messages and instant messages consistently get shorter and more functional with each new format. Our emotions are encapsulated in emojis and we don’t need to elaborate on them.

Elaboration is exactly what’s needed, though, as a writer and reader of a letter. As a writer, to have a canvas on which to detail our interpretations, our misgivings, our hopes. It’s what makes us us. As a reader, to have a lens into our dear friend’s world, to receive a map into the field of emotions that has sprung up.

When we write letters, we give our trust to our friend the reader, that what we have shared will be read with care and accepted with sympathy. We give our friend the opportunity to be a friend. It bonds us, across land and sea. Isn’t that what it’s about?

Giving is far better than gifting. The more commercial our festivals become, the more important it is to defy the easy way of material gifts and invest in the reason we want to give gifts in the first place, to make others feel appreciated, thought of, and cared for.  In the act, it gives to the giver as well, emitting essential joy into our existence.

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Giving, not gifting

These days I am reading “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki. It’s considered a classic. I can believe it, even though I’m probably understanding only a minuscule fraction of it.

Still, what we understand is a good place to start from. I read a passage that struck me as gold because it explained why I like giving. When we give, it said, we are in sync with the flow of life, that’s why we feel joy.

That’s a nice way to put it.

Being in sync with the world – oneness – feels intuitively like a source of happiness. No divisions, no separation, no friction. Much of my day goes in confronting situations, from the minor to the major. There are days when everything feels like a major threat, and then there are others, where irritations wash ashore like irrepressible little, prickly waves, unendingly. It is a dualistic scene: me vs [fill in the blank], over and over. A day conquered is a day hard-won.

Except when I give. The tension disappears when I’m giving something. Offering my seat on the subway to someone who looks tired but hasn’t asked. Sharing my lunch with a colleague. Sending a funny meme to a friend who’s been down.

I don’t give things, mostly; and it’s not important, I’ve discovered. It’s more about giving what’s wanted, which, usually, is experience-based stuff. These days, my time and attention seem to be the prized commodities. There’s something more intimate and committed about giving of yourself, through the attention paid or the caring shown. Things are a poor substitute for these feelings.

The festive season is getting started in many parts of the world, like India (Diwali coming up) and then Christmas and New Year. Gifting is a big part of festivals. What if, this year, it was about giving?


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