January 27, 2013

A journey begins

Well folks, it’s happening. As I approach the six-year mark at Google, I’m taking a seven-week leave of absence to travel -- and yes, to write.

This all got started when Google sent me abroad -- to Gurgaon, just outside Delhi -- for three months in 2009. I'd just gotten engaged, and my fiance's India-based family took me in, immediately, as one of their own. I went to Chandigarh, Dehradun, Faridabad, Calcutta -- all in the name of visiting my soon-to-be in-laws. But I had only weekends, and so my visits were always short. (Seriously, 22 hours in Calcutta?)

So I'm off to revisit many of those same towns, and a few more -- including Bangalore, where my brother and sister-in-law now live, and Madurai, where I've wanted to travel since watching Michael Wood on PBS's The Story of India.

While I'm there, I'll blog -- sharing stories I learn and histories about the way things used to be, the ways things are now and the people who lived on both stages. I won't give you an all-encompassing overview of the country, with its highs and lows, its beautiful colors and vistas right alongside its ugly challenges. What I do want to deliver, however, is a series of lessons in my own "adopted" family history -- from recipes for lemon pickle to stories about my in-laws as children.

The word "desi" [d̪eːsi] describes the people, cultures and products of South Asia, according to Wikipedia -- and India most specifically, in my book. In the years that I've been hanging out with my crew of Bombay-rooted friends here in San Francisco, they've taken to calling me a "half-desi" for the shine I've taken to all things Indian -- sarees, art, jewelry and, most notably, food. (A former manager thinks I must have been Indian in a past life.) For 45 days in India, I'm getting a chance to indulge that part of my life and to soak up even more of the culture I'm now hitched to. I can't wait to begin!

A Global Comfort

Today's New York Times Magazine article "Not-So-Cold Comfort" (print title), by Maggie Koerth-Baker, stirs up enough questions and answers to last until Sunday afternoon tea -- for me, at least.

Koerth-Baker's essay focuses on the effects of globalization on energy consumption, but it opens the doors to other "comfort" debates as well. To her point, globalization provides an opportunity to improve efficiencies as well as reasons, such as streamlining, to ignore them -- but it also has effects on culture.

First, an answer to a question that had puzzled me for years: Why on earth do men wear full suits to work in Houston in July and August, when the average high is around 94 degrees Fahrenheit? It's because the buildings they work in, according to the article, are engineered to make a man wearing a full suit comfortable -- i.e., via high levels of air conditioning on even the hottest days. (No wonder I always needed to keep a sweater at my chair when I worked in Texas.)

Second, some light on the ways that globalization comes at the cost of local cultures. The siesta is the only icon shown here to have significantly eroded (how terrible!), but it doesn't take much pondering to see that energy-efficient fluorescent lightbulbs, necessitated by diminishing fossil fuels, could endanger the Norwegian koselighet. And the artwork accompanying the story hints at additional "global standard" trends, including ones I've seen in my own life: fashion (women in India often wear jeans and t-shirts to their tech company jobs, rather than the traditional sari) and holidays (shops build snowy December window displays in San Francisco, where a white Christmas simply does not exist).

Third, the piece raises the question of what brings general comfort to a citizen of the world in the 21st century. Take food. We can assume that comfort food is what we grow up with. For me, for instance, my mom's super-simple chicken soup -- chicken mixed with rice cooked in chicken broth -- is still the perfect antidote to a sore throat. But in such an inter-connected world, we share these comforts with each other, creating new traditions. When I have a sinus infection, I now instinctively reach for spicy kung-pao or Thai curry, and I dare say that my family's homemade stromboli is as much a comfort for my Indian husband (it's said to have settled his love for me) as his family's soy-sauce chicken is for me (it's what we cooked the night he proposed).

So what will the world look like, as we continue to work, live and cook together, in 50 years? A hundred years? Will the needs for efficiency and standardization in business find us all wearing business suits to climate-controlled buildings from 9 to 5? Or will everyone go to work in salwar kameez and take a siesta to beat the heat, saving energy in summer days so that we can all practice koselighet at home in the winter evenings? Will the next generation see cultural lines in food, or will they eat and find comfort in a standard -- albeit delicious -- global buffet?

Here's hoping that, whatever direction we go, we avoid sacrificing taste and tradition for mere efficiency or streamlining.

January 22, 2013

Political Words of Wisdom: No. 1

In honor of both the inauguration and my hope that politics -- and news coverage -- might begin to take on more of a dialogue, instead of parallel monologues, I'm going to start a new feature: PWOW, for Political Words of Wisdom. 

I'll only be posting when I find a lovely pearl, so don't look for this too often. To get us started, here's a quote from John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO, as featured in the New York Times Magazine's "Talk" yesterday:

"This is America, and people disagree on things."

True story. Onward and upward.

January 12, 2013

Some writerly advice from George Saunders

(via The New York Times Magazine and a girl with a cold, still in her pajamas at 11 a.m. on a Saturday)

"So I took the Radian job, and it was a very liberating thing. If I can provide for [his family], then in my writing time I can be as wild as I want. Having felt that abyss, I basically said, 'O.K., capitalism, I have seen your gaping maw, and I want no trouble with you."

And, from a story of his:

"Don't be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen."

January 4, 2013

The patience of a snowglobe

For the past two days, I've been working on taking down the Christmas decorations -- mostly at home, but a few at my office, too.

One "decoration" I won't take down, however, is a snow globe that sits on my desk at work. It was a tiny gift from a holiday party in 2011 that's come in handy as a tool to chill out in the past year.

I didn't think a lot of the snow globe, to be honest -- until a few weeks after Christmas, when I saw this Pinterest post. Snow globes could be more than mere decoration, the post seemed to hint; they could also be a tool to refocus and relax.

I'd been dealing with my own pieces of anxiety and uncertainty over those weeks, and I found the post simple and inspiring -- so much so that I created a new "Board," named "Calm," to pin it on.

I've kept the snow globe on my desk ever since, ignoring both the changing of the seasons and the fact that snow is never seasonal in San Francisco. In a world, a city and an industry that move quite quickly, it's been a great reminder to slow down and take a few breaths -- even if I have to shake my tiny "glitter jar" multiple times, stirring the snow and then watching it settle down all over again, to get the desired effect.

It turns out even the tiniest new action, when repeated, can have the greatest of impacts.

The snowman "glitter jar."

January 1, 2013

Just three resolutions for 2013

Happy New Year!

Last night -- or rather, very early this morning -- as I climbed into bed, I resolved to do three things in 2013:

  1. Fall asleep in my bed each night -- rather than on the couch, where I am very often lulled into slumber as I watch TV.
    • Score: 1 for 1.
  2. Take a little time to relax this year. My 2012 was a great one of stretching, exploring, testing and attempting, and I wouldn't have it any other way -- but in 2013, I'd like to get back to smelling the roses a bit. Within this, I'll focus more on embracing my imperfections, and today was a great example of that. 
    • Score: 1 for 1, having spent much of today on my couch. I ignored the calls of clearing away Christmas decorations, going for a hike, heading out to brunch or sorting through the mail so that I could spend a few more needed hours watching "Downton" DVDs and the Northwestern University bowl game (We won! We won!).
  3. Write for 20 minutes each day. I'll resurrect this blog to share my whimsies a few times a week, and I'll work on getting a few of my other projects off the ground as well.
    • Score: 1 for 1.  
So, as you can see, the year is off to a solid, happy start. Many adventures -- and rests -- lie ahead, and I'm very much looking forward to them.