“Welcome to the USA!”

Chitra and I left Mumbai for Cincinnati on March 4, 2004 and have lived in the US since then. We started fresh in the city of the ‘Flying Pig’ – Cincinnati (Cincy) – blessed with wonderful friends, who lovingly introduced us to the American culture and traditions. In the gloom and unprecedented events of 2020, we finally became US Citizens, which was the only bright milestone for the year. Cincinnati, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and kind friends helped us setting our foundation and living this American dream. Sharing a few reflections from the early times of this journey.

Learning the American Accent or Not

In early 2004, we went in for our H1 (work) and H4 (dependent) visa interview. We were among hundreds who waited in long lines, our documents organized and ready for submission. In front of us stood an Indian teenager applying for his student visa. His father had accompanied him for support and assistance (only till the entrance of the embassy building). All through our time in the queue, we overheard him speak to his dad and occasionally to us. All of us were nervous and a sense of uncertainty loomed in the air. Once inside the embassy building, we noticed that kid again, at a distance, waiting for his interview turn. He was visibly nervous and had his hands clasped, head bowed low, as if in in prayer. We got busy with our interview process and later, walked out of the embassy in relief. The embassy officer had retained our passports, which meant they had approved our visa. While we were buying bottled water from a stall outside the embassy, someone spoke to both of us in perfect American accent ” How are you guys doing?”. He rolled his r’s perfectly in an American accent and now had an exaggerated swagger. It took us a few seconds to place the voice and the face. It was the same kid, now with a sparkle in his eye and new confidence in his demeanor. He was also headed to the US and was already speaking with his new accent. In the roughly 60 to 90 minutes since we had last seen him, he had changed into this cool American Indian kid! We still think of that and have a good laugh. In this matter, we are both quite slow – it has been 17 years in the US and we are yet to give up our “native” accent.

“Welcome to the USA!”

We arrived in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) on March 4, 2004. There was to be one more screening before entering the US, with the US Border Agents who screen all international passengers. You always heard and read stories about people getting sent back because the border agent officer was not convinced by the visa holders case. So, after the ~20 hours journey, once again, we entered a zone of uncertainty. They examined my visa and supporting documents first. I remember being asked a few questions and then it was Chitra’s turn. The officer asked her a couple of very basic questions, stamped her passport and commented “It wasn’t as bad as you had imagined, right!!?? Welcome to the USA and enjoy your stay”. Chitra had a big smile on her face – that was her first interaction with an American in the US. I have to admit people in general are very polite and welcoming with her. I wonder why…hmm? 🙂

Second Honeymoon Ends

My employer, Tata Interactive Systems (TIS), was relocating me to Cincinnati to manage our new partnership with Procter & Gamble (P&G). My manager, Nikhil Puri, prepared me for the assignment and was very clear about how long the gig will last. “Suresh, this is for 6 months and then you come back”. I had shared this with Chitra and we were both quite excited about it. We had mentally prepared ourselves for this 6 month assignment – it would be our second, extended honeymoon! I had taken an Executive Rental apartment (Garfield Tower Apartments), which was a few blocks from the P&G headquarters. This apartment was very well stocked with everything we could need, from cutlery to well designed furniture, even a house keeping service. 75% of my salary was going towards the rent and we were really living a lavish “second honeymoon”. We hosted several dinner parties at home with some of my clients and friends. Our guests were impressed with our apartment and thought well of TIS for taking good care of me, the expat from India! My 6 month tenure was coming to a close and while talking to Nikhil, it became clear that they wanted me to extend it by 6 more months. We had zero savings at this time and I negotiated a 12 month plan. Then came the tough choice of moving from our executive apartment to an unfurnished apartment in the same building. We were now in an empty apartment and had to set it up from scratch. The purchasing guidelines were simple; cheap, good looking and sturdy. During this time, my client sponsor’s wife, Brenda, was visiting Cincinnati downtown and requested to meet. I vividly remember getting back from work to find Brenda very delicately seated on our new dining chair. She looked uncomfortable and I can only imagine, must have had many, many questions buzzing through her mind. The TIS expat had moved to this bare walled apartment with zero frills. If she had asked me, I would have said “honeymoon period is over and reality has set in”!

Our First Dinner Invite in the US

Penny and Dick are two of the kindest people we know. Chitra started volunteering at Dress For Success (a non-profit) and developed a strong friendship with Penny. We were invited to dinner and this was our first visit to an American household. They lived in Asbury, Anderson Township which was ~25 minute drive from our apartment. We did not own a car back then, so Dick very graciously offered to pick and drop us back. They had invited us at 4 PM and we assumed it would be fun to talk and walk around their 4 acre plot. In our minds, we would have dinner at some point later in the evening. We were totally surprised when they announced dinner had been served at 4 PM. Indians are known to eat a late lunch and an even later dinner. We had had our lunch around 2 PM so I was quite shocked to be seated for a steak dinner so soon. I truly enjoy my meat and I had a strong sense of disappointment for not being hungry enough for such a special meal. We politely let them know about about our late lunch and they were kind enough to pack our dinner to take home for us. We had begun to view America through their home and family. We were also beginning to break many stereotypes in our minds about the American culture and the way of life here. Since our first dinner invite, we have spent many dinners, luncheons, movie outings, Christmas and Thanksgiving with them. Penny and Dick, if you ever read this, our interaction with you made us feel at home, loved & accepted and also helped us integrate better with America. Thank you and we love you.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) Set A Strong Foundation for My Corporate America Journey

Working for P&G as my first American client was a blessing. I worked with the best in the industry when it came to global business processes, innovative thinking, people maturity and program communication protocols. I have to call out Eric Brocious, who was my client sponsor then, and the brain behind the partnership with TIS. He mentored me and walked me through every step of the learning curve. There are many moments from those years which are memorable (some funny, too), however I would like to highlight a an episode of failure. We were working on a global learning program, developing modules for new hires across the world for P&G. This program – P&G’s Success Drivers – had high leadership visibility and more importantly, many senior executives who directly provided content for many of the modules. During the content creation phase we hit bad turbulence and it took us long to correct course. The delayed correction was in-part because of our my team’s quality control process and partly because of the delays we faced in getting these senior executives to provide their material in the correct structure. We got summoned to a meeting by Keith Lawrence, one of the key sponsors for the global program. Eric, Kim McGraw (Global Talent, Learning & Development Manager) and I were participating as one team. I was, however, representing the supplier team (TIS) and got roasted in the session. Honestly, had the meeting gone on a bit longer, tears would have rolled down my eyes. The meeting got over, we all stepped out and Eric told me to take the rest of the day off. The next day, I remember meeting Eric and he coached me not to take this failure personally. “What was stated was not directed at you but rather, at everyone in the room”. Although, for me, Eric and Kim getting lectured for the poor quality on my team’s deliverable was a personal failure. It took me a few days to recover and we did manage to land that program successfully. Eric was not my direct manager, he was a client, however, his people management and leadership skills are something I hope to have walked away with. Eric and I continue to be good friends and did I mention, big fans of Skyline Chilli (5 way!).

Exposure Outside Cincinnati & P&G’s Cosmopolitan Bubble

Penny was a professor at Thomas More University (Northern Kentucky) and she had invited us (Chitra and me) to guest lecture the Executive MBA students on ‘Cultural Diversity and It’s Impact on Work Life’. The objective was for both of us to share from our personal experiences how Culture Impacts Work Life in the US and in India. These were 30-45 minute sessions and it also gave us a glimpse into American life outside the Cincinnati + P&G bubble. It was interesting to hear the type of questions being asked and to observe how our answers were being received. Many of the students attending the program had never stepped beyond the borders of Kentucky. In one session, we were asked if India was a Monarchy. This came as a surprise to us because CNN was running an advertisement campaign on air where their anchors were answering questions emphasizing CNN’s global reach. One such question in the campaign was “Which is the world’s largest democracy?” to which Anderson Cooper would answer “India”. We were once asked “what was one aspect that impressed us most about America?” We were not prepared for this question, but replied unhesitatingly and in tandem, “The public library system”! The students looked back at us almost in disappointment. Coming from India, the large, well stocked, friendly Public Libraries in the US were a marvel for us – it was a very honest answer. We undertook ~5 such sessions and in every interaction we would learn something new. I have to say that living in Cincinnati and working in P&G was a cosmopolitan bubble that is rare and we were lucky to experience it.

Chitra with Mary (to Chitra’s right) and her yoga friends

Finding Her Passion, Yoga!

Moving with me to the US was a big step for Chitra. She was going to be on a dependent visa and would not be eligible to work. We had both done our MBAs together, she was the second individual in our batch of 1996-98 to get campus recruited with a company that was her dream workplace – Shoppers’ Stop (the first corporate retail chain in India). She had always been sure about her decisions and goals. When I was offered the P&G role, she was once again sure about leaving behind her career and joining me on our “second honeymoon”. So, after the initial high of being in a new country, she wanted to get busy and my client Bea Davis directed her to Dress For Success (DFS). DFS’ vision is to provide assistance to women in need with appropriate clothing to interview for a job, and also provide a stable, safe and caring environment as they reclaim their lives. DFS’ Cincy office was walkable from our apartment and she began volunteering with them. Soon, she had a small circle of good friends and was in a happy place outside home. When we moved to a larger apartment in Mount Lookout, she ended up walking into Delta 1018 Fitness Center. That led her to meeting her first yoga teacher, Mary Kemper. Little did she know, that it was the start of her Yoga journey. Mary introduced Chitra to all her students saying, “This is Chitra from India and she has never done Yoga before”!! Yes, it is a shame that back when we were in India, Yoga did not get the respect it deserved (I know it has changed since then). I personally thought Yoga was for senior citizens, a slow moving activity that I did not want to be associated with yet. Since 2005, Chitra has been blessed with gifted teachers who have inspired and encouraged her. Today, she continues diving deeper in her practice and is a certified Yoga teacher. It gives her joy and balance. For that, we both say “Thank you, Mary”!

“Listen People, Suresh Jogs!”

Among the many people I interacted with in P&G, Deb Lowell is a name I can’t forget. We did not work on a project, neither were we close friends. We ended up working in the same work bay and got to interact as office colleagues. She was curious to learn about my experiences and would often pull my leg over my choice of words. She was a firecracker with a great sense of humor. We were once talking about our routine after work and I said, “I jog in the evenings”. She asked me to repeat what I had said, which I easily did. She then proceeded to stand up from her chair and announced loudly “Listen people, Suresh “jogs” in the evenings!”. I don’t remember if anyone paid attention to what she had announced, but she later explained to me that I should be “running” and not “jogging”. Growing up in India, going for a ‘jog’ or ‘jogging’ was part of my vocabulary. More importantly for me, my ‘jog’ was like a punishment. When I would get in trouble, papa insisted I go for a ‘jog’ or when our soccer coach made us ‘jog’ around the field for not performing. She went on to share her wisdom on the word ‘run’ and how that fit well with my age, fitness level and action. That led us to exchanging notes on how much we ran etc. She sowed in me the idea of running the ‘Flying Pig Half Marathon’. On May 1, 2005, I ran my first half and since then ‘running’ has become a big part of my life. I have completed two full marathons and it no longer feels like a punishment. Chitra, too, has been bitten by the bug and has run two half marathons. So ‘running’ is now an integral part of our lives gives us joy and balance. Deb, wherever you are “Thank you”!

  • Bhavesh bhai and me

Jai Hind Jai Maharastra

While staying in the downtown apartment, we met Bhavesh Parmar, whom I fondly call “Bhavesh bhai” (Bhavesh brother). He also hailed from Mumbai, Maharastra, and as we Mumbaikars say, our wavelengths clicked immediately. He lived in the same apartment building and we started hanging out together – movies, dinner/lunch, tea/coffee, Indian temple trips and ping pong (table tennis). Bhavesh was single then and a very mild natured, kind, human being. He had been living in the country longer than us so, in that respect, a senior with more experience. Chitra always narrates the story of serving Bhavesh bhai his first cup of tea in our house. She asked him how many spoons of sugar, to which he replied “six”. Chitra confirmed that twice and then proceeded to make Bhavesh’s special sugar tea! To his credit, he has now curtailed his sugar intake drastically. He owned a black Volkswagen Passat and would never hesitate in offering us rides to Newport on the Levy or the Indian Temple. Did I mention he is a devout Hindu and takes his Monday evening trips to the Hindu Temple in Cincy very seriously. We were not as religious but dinner plans after temple visits used to be a good motivator to tag along. As our friendship grew, we would greet each other with “Jai Hind, Jai Maharastra” (Victory to India, Victory to Maharastra). Till date, every time we talk or meet, this greeting makes both of us smile. He continues to flourish in wonderful Cincinnati with his beautiful wife – Dipali, son – Bhavya and their pet dog – Fufi.

Meet the Davis Family

While working from Mumbai, my first P&G project was with Bea Davis. It was also her first project with TIS and an Indian team. As a Project Manager, my role was to make Bea successful with her clients and leadership. She was responsible for the learning and development activities for the Supply Chain Operations group. This project of mine was a success and I think she had given Eric a good thumbs up for my performance and selection as the Cincy based Key Account Manager from TIS. Her late husband Joe and she were one of our first dinner party guests. They were open to exploring the Indian cuisine and Chitra churned our her best dishes – Bhindi Churi Muri (thinly sliced and spiced fried Okra), Yellow Dal (lentil dish), Indian Fish curry, Roti (Indian Bread), Rice and Gajar ka Halwa (grated carrot sweet dish). They loved the food and Joe, specifically, loved the fried Okra, which became standard on our menu every time they came home. Two points about Joe, he could talk intelligently about any topic and he had a towering yet gentle personality. They reciprocated by having us over to their home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other occasions. Bea’s green bean casserole is the best ever and I haven’t had better anywhere else. She may never realize this, but the confidence her words instilled in me, gave me the courage to fly higher professionally. Bea, you will always have a soft spot in my heart.

Reflecting back on our American journey, we were lucky to have started in Cincy, at P&G, and surrounded by friends who brought positivity into our lives. We love you all and look forward to many more memorable moments together.

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Summer of 1985 and 2020

The Morton Arboretum – Summer 2020

Summer of 1985. I was in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India. Dad was working for the last Maharaja of Nawanagar (Jamnagar) – H.H. Jamsaheb Shatrusalyasinhji Jadeja – and we lived on the palace grounds in a bungalow (single family home). We were accustomed to living in huge homes because Dad was with the Indian army for 23 years and many of our cantonment homes were similarly styled. The only difference here was that we were cut off from the rest of the city by a huge wall running around the ~50 acre palace grounds. There were many wild animals – Monkeys, Black Bucks, Indian Gazelles, Blue Bulls, Spotted Deer, Wild Buffalos, Monitor Lizards, Crocodiles and many more – roaming free, like in a private preserve. Life was royal when we first moved here. We had our tea/coffee/milk and snacks while peacocks roamed in our yard and danced to impress the peahens.

In those years, Jamsaheb did not have any sustained cash flow. He owned many large palaces all around Jamnagar and hundreds of families had been working for him from generations. ‘Eccentric’ would be a very mild characterization for him. My dad managed his operations and administration – people and property. There were months when employees did not get paid and the growing dissent would nudge Jamsaheb to travel abroad or to Mumbai. Not sure what he did there, but on his return money would be available and employees paid. There were rumors that he would sell his ancestral treasures in these trips like antique swords with embedded gems, antique jewels, gold, vintage cars etc.

My dad ended up using much of his retirement funds for our family expenses and many a times paying salaries to folks working in the palace. Now is not the time to dwell into the ‘eccentric’ nature of my dad. However, this lifestyle led to my dad exhausting all his savings and finally deciding to pursue new work in Mumbai, Maharastra, India. Since it was the middle of the school year, it was decided that Mummy, my older brother and I would stay back to complete the year. Also, our presence would be a reminder to Jamsaheb that he owed dad and needs to stick with his promise to pay up.

A couple of months into our stay, Mummy had not received any payments from Jamsaheb and money from dad was only trickling in. I’m not sure of the exact reason but we lost electricity in our home. On enquiring with Jamsaheb, we were told it was temporary and would be restored soon. Electricity and water charges were paid for by the Palace. We continued living in that home for around 7 months with no electricity and facing severe financial troubles. I was in 6th grade and my older brother in 10th. Honestly, that phase in life did not scar me for long but two stories have stayed with me till date. These are linked to Parle-G biscuits and a used cricket bat.

For readers not from India, Parle G is a biscuit brand that was super popular (and back in the 80s, probably the only nationwide brand). Not too expensive, I enjoyed them by stacking a few and dipping them in milk before devouring them (Yummy!). However, 1985 was no ordinary summer and Mummy had to ration these biscuits for me. Many times, I ate the last biscuit and had to wait for mom to buy another pack at a feasible time. Till date, I dig Parle G and love its taste and texture.

I was introduced to the sport of Cricket in 3rd grade and had begun developing good skills. During the same year in Jamnagar, I had outgrown my first cricket bat but continued playing with it. I did not want to ask mom for a new one, knowing well that we could not afford it. It was during this time that we got invited for lunch to a friend’s place and the hosting family had a son the same age as my brother. During this visit, that older kid played some cricket with me and commented on how well I was batting. When it was time to leave, he brought out a used cricket bat, which was pretty knocked up (chipped, dinged & had a shaky handle). He was planning to junk it – instead, it came home with me. I was super thrilled to have got a bat that was a good fit to my height. Since we did not have electricity at home, I had to try and finish all my school work during day hours. We used multiple Petromax lanterns around the house at night and there was a proper routine for getting them ready and started to ensure we had enough light around the house. My playing hours were cut short and the fact that we lived inside the palace grounds resulted in me being largely cut off from friends who lived away from us. Before nightfall, my mom would come to the backyard and ask me to bat. She would pick pebbles and throw them towards me, my goal being to hit them clean and far. This was her way of keeping me engaged in an activity I enjoyed.

Ringing in 2020 from Hawaii

Fast forward to 2009, when Yash was born, I was determined that my son would never experience financial hardships on account of my folly or stupidity. We have managed and planned our resources well. We live a balanced lifestyle, take vacations regularly and Yash has always lived in a home owned by us. I love buying him his sports gear and equipment. This activity gives me such joy that he would probably never comprehend. We celebrated and welcomed the new year – 2020 – in Hawaii and it started out as what seemed like another memorable year. Then our lives got consumed by Corona Virus (COVID-19) and the “normal” changed for everyone. From late February, I started working from home and Yash’s last elementary school year (5th grade) moved online. Soon it was time for his summer break and we hunkered down at home. Both Chitra and I wondered how this isolation would impact Yash. Little did we know then, how 2020 will go down memory lane as an unprecedented year changing social behaviors for all humans.

All through the year we have counted our blessings and have reiterated this message to Yash. He may never have experienced first hand family financial troubles, but Chitra and I have tried to instill in him a value and appreciation for his lifestyle and it’s associated comforts. I am not someone to celebrate too soon and he has many more years ahead as he further develops to being a kind human. But it would not be a stretch to say that he has value for money and has never begged/bugged us for unnecessary or expensive gifts/toys etc.

Summer of 2020 was a test for Yash and eerily similar to my 1985 experience. He was largely confined to home and had to entertain himself with whatever was available in and around the house. Looking back at the year I give him an ‘A’ grade. He made good choices and did not let COVID-19 restrictions break him. I want to go on record, listing down activities that he spent time on during this lockdown. In the future whenever I lose it with him or question his actions, I can read this blog and remember his resolute and happy energy during the summer of 2020.

Monkey Slack-line Activity – Summer 2020
Come On Papa, You Will Do It Someday!!

We had given him a choice to buy something to keep him physically occupied in our yard. After some research we boiled down to buying a monkey slack line and he was on board with that plan. Honestly I was equally excited about it and had visualized swinging my 45 year old body from it with the agility of an olympian gymnast! After a great deal of effort, we managed to hook up the line and very soon my dreams of swinging across the line went swinging along. The ‘slack’ in the line makes you (well ‘me’) feel like a sack of potatoes and my arms would give way to a slow-motion drop on the grass. Yash was initially very excited but soon realized the effort it took to swing across the line. I remember telling him to keep trying “you will be able to swing back-n-forth five times by the end of summer!” After many attempts he got the hang of using his core and soon began to enjoy the challenge. He spent many, many hours just hanging about and displaying his monkey spirit in full color. He was able to cover the 25 feet long swinging adventure and back, six times by mid summer. He had begun to develop calluses on his hands and I may not have acknowledged this enough, but I was proud! Etched in my memory is the thrill in his eyes seeing me struggle, barely making it to the second grip and falling down not so gracefully.

Yash explored creativity with his hands, building stuff. Small things with paper, hard cardboard, scraps he would salvage from packaging materials etc. We had a new neighbor move in and he approached them for empty boxes they were recycling after the move. They were very kind to share with him. That only meant one half of our basement was a war zone…sorry creative studio (!) This artist has a special ability to push his mumma’s blood pressure through the roof! I have to admit, Chitra has lowered her benchmark for tidiness for Yash. Mind you, that’s Chitra’s low benchmark, which in a majority of households would be their best home showings. He started exploring paper based models, initially these were Minecraft characters, airplanes, guns, swords, shields. Later he picked up a glue gun to create interactive gaming models. And recently he has been exploring with clay. My dad too would build stuff with his hands, like ship models, airplanes models etc. He would showcase them in local exhibitions and gift them to friends and some strangers too. There is some gene of my dad in Yash…the building part, sharing with others – not so much yet!

From Yash’s Art Studio!

His poetry writing and comic illustrations took a back seat, however he explored random activities…being Batman all day long, jumping out of closets to welcome mummy home…put together a green super hero costume – Night Vision – and wore that for many days, inside and outside home (even in the summer heat)…and recently after watching Robert Downing Jr.’s Iron Man movies he created an Iron Man helmet! He wanted to explore camping on his own (with Bambi), so we pitched a tent in our backyard. Bambi and he did make it through all night. Do note, I was ordered to be the night watchman sleeping on the family room floor to keep watch on “her” precious son!

Welcoming Mom & Iron Man Inspiration

Dad had introduced me to many classic war movies during my middle school years. So this summer with the COVID-19 lockdown, we bought a few blu-rays for our home collection. Yes I still collect (!) physical movie Blu-rays. Every weekend we had family movie nights and watched them, hopefully creating some more good memories with Yash. There were a few that Yash really liked and we ended up watching them multiple times. Listing some of these classics from our home collection: Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on River Kawai, Von Ryan’s Express, Where Eagles Dare, The Longest Day and Kelly’s Heroes. Yash’s favorite were Guns of Navarone and Von Ryan’s Express. Many of Yash’s art projects (guns, planes) were inspired from these movies and he also does an awesome German officer imitation!

Another form of entertainment, if I can use that phrase, was the 2020 presidential election. We followed key events – debates, town halls, election night etc together and it was largely limited to PBS Newshour. I was impressed with how Yash was absorbing the words spoken by both candidates and also what political analysts were sharing. Later, on election night we swapped between multiple news channels to understand how election results were being presented. Yash was very tickled by all the frenzy around “CNN Projecting Now” immediately followed by “Too close to call”.

This year marked Yash’s venture to online gaming and interacting with his friends over video (Zoom/FaceTime). He has now explored Minecraft, Pokemon and also follows a couple of YouTubers. This last bit gets me to roll my eyes, as I wonder what excitement or entertainment value it has. Watching a 21 year old live stream his game and thousands watching it. As Yash will say “Papa you are just too old to understand this!” There is a character called ‘Technoblade” and he is Yash’s new hero. Yash narrates words of wisdom (!) spoken by Techno or funny quotes by him. We (Chitra and I) have also been subject to some of Techno’s animation – music/action – videos on YouTube, multiple times. I did google him today and realized he has 3.79 million subscribers to just his YouTube channel and more than half a billion views to his videos! Someone has planned for his retirement in his twenties, while I still continue to figure out my path. Technoblade, more power to you as long as you instill more thoughts of ‘kindness’ (!) into Yash.

2020 has been a challenging year and there is much to forget. As a parent, this was a test for us. These were events outside our control and certainly impacted Yash’s school and social life. I don’t recall him bugging Chitra or me with the dreaded ‘I am bored’ statements or getting into trouble at school or at home because of all the energy he has in him. Being a single child, he either went out and entertained himself or created new stuff. We sincerely hope he carries this trait forward and leverages it more.

Bambi at Peace with the World

In closing, as a family we have been blessed to have a steady household income, a stable job, ability to Work from Home (WFH) and retain our sanity staying hunkered down at home. We have been able to contribute to some of our favored charities and hope 2021 is a better year for the world. Bambi, for sure, is the most delighted Menon this year, as he has all his humans around him…always!! Until next time, be kind.

#summer2020 #YashMenon #hope2021 #technoblade

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“Thank You” to all my coaches!

Participation Trophy

Growing up in India, I was never exposed to professional coaching for any sport and I did play a few – Cricket, Soccer, Badminton and Table Tennis. Sports was a way to express yourself outside school and make friends. Some of the older kids guided us on how to improve or shared new techniques. There was no YouTube or Coach Google either.

With Yash, every sport he has picked up in the US – Taekwondo, Swimming & Wrestling, has involved a structured setup and paid or voluntary coaching staff. I am certain there are pros and cons to each ecosystem (his and mine). As someone who has had many such opportunities since birth, Yash does not appreciate it enough. And as someone who may have benefitted with some coaching as a kid and got none, I care too much!

At a tournament
Wrestler of the week recognition by Coach

Now don’t get me wrong….Yash is a kind kid and respects his coaches, follows instructions and seldom gets in trouble (at least, that’s what we think😉). But I want him to revere his coaches and in my idealistic mind, I also put the coaches on a pedestal and expect them to do everything that will be in Yash’s interest. In both scenarios, many a times, I have walked away unsatisfied.

That being said, this last wrestling season I was super impressed by the professionalism and enthusiasm of the coaches at Fox Valley Wrestling Club (FVWC). There have been many instances during this season, where the coaches understood Yash and were able to connect with him in a way that he would appreciate too. I do, however, want to call out one episode, which meant a lot to us as parents.

FVWC kids participate in meets and based on their performance qualify for regionals, sectionals and state tournaments. I have never played this sport and there is a lot to learn every season (this was our 2nd season). Yash enjoys horsing around in the house with his friends and me. He is also a kid with a LOT of energy. Our objective while registering him for this Wrestling season was for him to have fun, burn some energy and stay fit (in a secure space). At this point, I am unclear how passionate he is about the sport and how far he will go with it. 2019-20 was a tough season and we (both Chitra and I) were happy to see him head to his training without any whining or fuss. As you can see, we have set a low benchmark! 😁 So, to our surprise, we learnt that he had qualified for sectionals. Yash was bummed, because in his mind, he had competed in his last tournament – the regionals! Our initial reaction was volatile, because he did not see value in qualifying for sectionals. It was only later in the day, we started thinking from Yash’s point of view. He had barely made it to the sectionals and did not have the skills or maturity to go through another grueling tournament. We decided to inform the coach about our decision not to put Yash through it. We explained our logic and to our surprise, he (Yash’s coach) responded positively. I was honestly expecting some frustration from him, because one spot would be going vacant from his club. But the fact that he was able to understand and relate to our objectives for Yash made this a positive experience. Next season, hopefully Yash is better skilled and begins to enjoy some more wins.

End of Season Message for Yash

The season ended rather abruptly because of COVID-19 and the club was unable to organize their planned closing events. However, the coaches did surprise Yash with a meaningful participation trophy for the season (cover picture) and a very thoughtful message delivered to our house (seen above). I have to admit, Yash felt very special that day and looks forward to the next season (I think!😊). He penned this short ‘thank you’ poem for all his coaches. Hope you enjoy reading it too.

Getting on the mat,
Stalking like a cat,
Remembering advice,
Sprawling thrice,
Taking a shot,
Getting pushed down a lot,
Feeling your blood get hot.


Winning one match,
Losing two,
Getting faster,
Learning more things to do.
Next match,
You win two rounds,
Getting pinned on your back,
But slowly turning round.


In the final match,
You win all three rounds,
Never showing slack,
To pin someone on their back!

#thankyoucoach #fvwc #poetrysoothes #yashmenon #foxvalleywrestlingclub #dangal

Related data points

  1. Fox Valley Wrestling Club (FVWC): www.foxvalleywrestlingclub.com
  2. ‘Dangal’ the movie that sparked Yash’s wrestling spirit: Available on Netflix

A Spot of Black! by Yash Menon

COVID-19

Yash, our 11 year old son, has two super powers – reading & poetry writing. As parents we are constantly trying various techniques to nurture these traits, because someone (I won’t say who), does not care much at this point in his life! Two days back we nudged him to pen a poem for our community healthcare professionals. ‘A Spot of Black’ is his “thank you” to these heroes who live normal lives amongst us. Last night we delivered this to few such heroes whom we know. This is my effort to spread Yash’s “thank you” to many more around the world. Hope you all enjoy this read.

A Spot of Black!

There is something among us,
A spot of black in white, 
And blood cells are coming out to fight,
This growing bigger spot of black,
This Virus, 
Draws your breath away, 
Quickly, 
Coming close, 
Spreading like a wildfire, 
The straits become more dire, 
Now you are the one it chose. 

So slow, 
Yet so quick, 
You are ceasing to exist. 
Your eyes close, 
Your window of life is closing. 

Doctors, Nurses, 
Huddle around, 
Trying to keep it open, 
Then came the black. 


But your soul fought back. 
Slowly your cells attach, 
Themselves to this dangerous intruder, 
The window of life’s curtain, 
Is falling back, 
Light is pouring into your eyes. 

The doctors and nurses perform CPR, 
Though it might be too late, 
And the heart monitor is slowing down, 
Yet they still continue. 


BEEP BEEP Beep Beep Beep BEEP BEEP 


Your heart is beating back to normal, 
The doctor’s and nurses’ persistence pushed through, 
Your cells just have to fight, 
A tiny spot of black. 

With all your might, 
You open your eyes, 
And realize, 
You are back in the light.

 

#yashmenon #poetrysoothes #thankyourhealthcareworkers #COVID-19

 

Related data points

 

#3W30CHALLENGE – A reboot for the new year

3W30CHALLENGE_V2_Images.002

In our 40s, many of us have families, own home/s, many professional achievements to talk about, relative financial security, an average health index and a mind which is getting comfortable and secure with the ecosystem. If you are in this group, CONGRATULATIONS! Your hard work, support from loved ones and some luck has brought you this far.

 

Maslow's_Hierarchy.001

Going by Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs, you are among few humans at stage 4. This may not have been a straight, unidirectional upward journey. Many may have encountered setbacks resulting in downward shift/s and later bounced back to stage 4. It’s time now to introspect with a simple question  “how do I feel?”. 

“I feel stuck…”

“Lacking motivation…”

“Looming deadlines wear me down…”

“Not energetic enough…”

“Work is no longer challenging…”

If your answer is far from the statements mentioned above, it’s time, again, to CONGRATULATE yourself and continue with your blessed life. You need no reboot, so move on from this post and hopefully share your energy and kindness with folks around you. 

During the last few years, some of my good friends, whom I think of being successful in life, have expressed in many ways the notion of ‘hitting a wall’. Not having the thrill of dealing with scenarios they have excelled at in the past or developing an impatient temperament at home or expressing their frustrations more frequently at work. These discussions and my personal experiences led me to research this topic.

The more I dwelled, I realized how widespread it is – with very few recognizing it and actively pursuing a path for change. A very close friend of mine did the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostel in Northwest Spain. My father did the Sabrimala pilgrimage, a trek to Sannidhanam (in the state of Kerala, India) an abode to Lord Ayyappa, multiple times in his lifetime. Few other acquaintances completed the challenging Vippasana program, a 10 day silent meditation retreat. One of our neighbors did the Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Many pursue more physically challenging endeavors like completing a marathon or climbing Mount Everest. Kudos to all these people, because these experiences help your body & mind reboot. They were able to take a break from normal routine and invest a decent portion of their resources (time/money), but what if you can’t? Introducing #3W30CHALLENGE.

What is #3W30CHALLENGE?

Wakeup – Workout – Whole30

For 30 days.

30_Day_Tracker

Sunrise

 

Wakeup

Jolt your system by starting your day early. The definition of early is before 5AM local time. Research indicates that only 8% of Americans are in this club. Some find this routine easy and many think of it as an insane ask. If you are in the ‘insane’ camp, then this is your first challenge.

I have always been an early riser and can’t give my creative or focused best after 10PM. I am known to fall asleep in late night work calls. I vividly recall a conference call, where the organizer (my manager) had to boot everyone off his bridge, because I had begun to snore and was not responding to their pleas. On waking up, I remained quiet, trying to catch up on the discussion, only to realize I was the only one on the call. Needless to say, the next day, I had a sheepish start at work.

Benefits from the ‘Wakeup’ challenge:
  • Most of the days I would wake up a few minutes before my alarm. Every time this happened, it reinforced the power of the mind. You honestly feel good beating the alarm. I thought 6 hours of sleep was good for me, however now I know that to be a fact. Every time I got 6 hours of sleep, my day started strong – on a high note. On other days, sluggishness plagued me. 
  • I was looking ahead and planning not only for my next day’s schedule, but for the entire week. Mentally, I would be walking through my activities and that realization only occurred when I was in week 2. Needless to say, this got me more organized and prepared. Also, when you think of a problem or an important meeting a week ahead, it begins an iterative process, resulting in more creative and multiple point of views. 
  • During the weekends, my fitness center opened at 7am and I would end up reading or writing after waking up and loved those peaceful moments. I was well rested, there was no rush and my home environment quiet. There is a certain ‘zen’ feeling to it. The only interruptions were the creaking of our wood floors or the humming of our central cooling system. 
  • I was doing this challenge in Chicago during summertime and taking Bambi (our pet dog) for an early morning walk or run was simply blissful. You hear birds chirping, feel the morning mist on your skin and see other people who are also ahead of the rest of the world. To be out without the noise of vehicles and be among the first to experience that state has a calming effect for the rest of your day. 

 

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Workout

Workout for the purpose of this challenge, will be specific to each of our fitness levels. Goal is to workout for a minimum of 30 minutes with only 1 rest day in the week. Ideally, we complete this first thing in the morning, before any other commitments set in.

My routine covered weight training and aerobic exercise. Weight training targeted complementary muscle groups each week and I would choose between swimming, cycling or running for my aerobic workout. There were days when I was unable to do both and would choose between the two. 

Benefits from the ‘Workout’ challenge:
  • My enthusiasm for this part of the challenge was super high, and I was eagerly looking forward to these 30 days. What I did not anticipate was the energy derived from other regulars, who also workout early in the morning. Don’t recall talking to many, but the intensity seen in their routines pushed my performance too. This may seem insignificant, but you don’t jump out of bed each day. On slow days, this focussed and high intensity energy around you gets you into the right groove.
  • When you workout immediately upon waking up, you have accomplished a big goal for yourself. That feeling of having successfully completed an important task for the day was wonderful. Typically your daily family/work schedule kicks in and then you keep procrastinating your workout for later in the day. By the time you get done with work (early or late evening) and think about working out, family commitments unravel. You may also suffer from ‘guilt’ of not spending more time with family members. 
  • During my graduation years, I would reach college early, workout and then attend class. Remember one of my professors lecturing the class about how some of us were burning our energy out in the morning and running low through the rest of the day. Now that is total BS. Science has attested to the link between working out and getting your endorphins flowing. These endorphins certainly help you for the rest of the day. You are able to manage stress better, you are in a good mood and have a spring in your step! 
  • I do want to make a cautionary statement about taking baby steps before walking or running. It is crucial to not let our egos drive us to an injury. During this challenge, I was embarking on weight training after many years and there was no shame in working with light weights for the first two weeks. It is crucial to focus on ‘form’ and there are many tutorials available online. So please leave your ego out on this challenge.
  • Chitra (my better half) always comments that I take too long to get ready when we “both” have to go out some place. A self admission, the last few weeks I have spent more time in front of mirrors admiring my body. Last evening we were all heading out for dinner and waiting in the mudroom I was admiring my triceps in the mirror. That was precisely when Yash (my 10 year old son) walks in, commenting “admiring yourself, because no one else does!!”, followed by a comical reenactment. Hah! I loved that moment, also admiring your body is definite benefit! 🙂

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Whole30

The third element to this challenge is to consume only whole30 compliant food.  My last post focussed on Whole30 and its life changing impact. So here I am capturing some brief material. Please read my earlier post for more details.

https://shantatman.com/2019/09/02/whole30-welcome-energy-and-peace-back-into-your-life/

A one line answer of what to eat when on whole30; food before the farming revolution. So anything that could be hunted or fished and what could be picked/gathered from trees/plants. Quick reference table:

Whole30_Table.001

Why 30 days?

Actions need to be repeated to form habits. There is research suggesting it takes 21 or 28 days to form a habit. Psychologist Author – Jeremy Dean – states in his book that both these values are demonstrably incorrect. It can take us much longer to form a habit, depending on the action/activity. So if you were hoping to start tracking your daily food calorie intake, that may be possible to achieve in 21 or 28 days. However, if you want to create an early morning workout habit, it could take longer. In short, activities that are challenging for you mentally or physically, take longer to develop as a habit.

I have been recording my daily calorie intake for more than a year and now my day seems incomplete without it. This habit of mine, was not difficult to form. 

Calorie_Track

The 30 day challenge helps you develop easier good habits and encourages you to pursue more challenging ones. 

In conclusion

We are all unique, beautiful people and #3W30CHALLENGE not easy to complete. There are always excuses in life and only we can overcome them. I challenge you to this journey and no better way to start a new year. So here is wishing you and your loved ones a healthy and memorable 2020.

 

Related data points

#Whole30 : Welcome energy and peace back into your life

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At boarding school, my friends gave me the nick name “thulla”, which in the Sindhi language means “fatso”.  Every time I met my parents, however – during those very years – they would say “Don’t they feed you? We can count your bones!”. The name calling or comments never bothered me. When food was served, I would relish it and that is what mattered. I could devour just about anything – poorly made porridge, a watery bowl of lentils or just plain hard bread. As an active kid, my body needed fuel and my brain would be in a happy place during school canteen/cafeteria hours.

Until the age of 37, I don’t recall worrying about how many calories I was consuming or what my fat, protein and carb mix was for the day. I would work out and eat a wide spectrum of foods (vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, legumes, chocolates, Indian sweets, varieties of Indian bread etc). In 2016, I was training for my second full marathon – it was also the year I turned 40 – when Chitra (my wife), heard about Whole30 from a friend. As long as I’ve known her, she has been plagued by the perception that she needs to lose weight. And I have jokingly asked (with dire consequences), “which finger of yours needs to lose weight!!??” So even though Whole30 is a ‘reset’ program, she started her research, to soon realize, there was enough merit to explore our first 30 day program – hence the name, Whole30.

Stating upfront that we have benefited a lot from Whole30 and I am an unpaid, vociferous advocate. I talk about it to strangers on flights, my customers and friends/family – who have had to bear me the most. I’m sure this post will get a lot of eye rolls from some of these “victims”. Having said that, anyone I know, who has experienced the program and was disciplined about it for the 30 day period has benefited immensely. As I have stated on multiple occasions “it is a life changing experience.”

Is it a weight loss program?

Absolutely not! During the first year, I consumed nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans and pistachios) very liberally and there was a phase after my marathon when I was “couching” hard, so no prizes for guessing that I gained a few pounds. There will be cases where people have had a poor diet for years and may be overweight. A simple switch to a better eating lifestyle will result in weight loss. 

Do we have to do it for 30 days?

Yes. After we started this eating lifestyle, we loved it soo much that we continued it beyond the 30 days and have largely (~90%) followed it for 3 years now. There are times when we vacation or travel to India and simply cut loose. Almost instantly, we realize the impact of it and soon switch back to a disciplined 30 day routine for a reset. As a matter of fact, I’m currently on day 29, after over indulging my systems this summer.

What is the objective of Whole30?

As we go through the ups and downs of life and get closer to our 40s, we knowingly or unknowingly abuse our body. This abuse is driven largely by lifestyle, choice/addiction to processed food and poor sleep routines. There are hormonal changes and also an imbalance to our body’s chemical composition. In short, our body is wearing out. With this plan, we are helping our body hit the ‘reset’ button.

From my personal experience, after the first 30 days, my body felt lighter and tighter (no bloating). I had more energy and there were no lethargic spells in the afternoon hours (post lunch etc). I completed my second marathon, including the training months, while on Whole30 and there was no adverse impact. One key observation was that my body recovered faster from minor niggles/injuries. 

Also importantly, after Whole30, when you introduce foods not consumed during the 30 day period, your body is very vocal about how sensitive you are to them. In my case, when I introduced rice (only a couple of spoons), it felt like I was trying to digest a softball. Another example is black beans – after eating a small quantity, I‘m ready to give a 21 gun salute. Bread is OK, though and I don’t feel miserable. You’re able to identify food types that don’t work well with your body and you can either avoid them totally or consume with caution. 

What can you eat and what not?

One line answer – food prior to the farming revolution. So anything that could be hunted or fished and what could be picked/gathered from trees/plants. Quick reference table:

Whole30_Table.001

What do we typically consume in the day?

Breakfast:

This has been the best discovery for me so far. 99% of the times, I eat 1 banana, 1 apple, 3 tablespoons almond butter and 2 hard boiled eggs. I love to mash my banana into the almond butter, thoroughly mix and use that as a dip for my apple slices. On a few occasions,  I have been accused of saying “this combination is better than sex!” Chitra’s yoga guru told her to keep a bottle of almond butter on our bedside table, with the hope that I will renounce my claim. Thankfully, I have not been put to the test (yet!). 😊 On our hard boiled eggs, we like to sprinkle salt and pepper/red chili powder. This meal gives me 685 calories and keeps me going through afternoon.  

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Lunch and dinner:

Whole30 gives you a number of options to experiment and you can get very creative in your cooking. On a typical day, we eat some sea food (baked salmon) and various types of vegetables.

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Few tricks from our kitchen:
  • Currys are based in coconut milk, which gives them a thick and creamy texture
  • Makhane (lotus flower seeds) are a substitute for something crunchy and when toasted in olive oil or ghee with Indian spices, a great healthy snack (think of them as popcorn)
  • Cauliflower rice and veggies make a great filling meal
  • Sweet potatoes roasted in the oven are awesome. Chitra’s kitchen produces the best in the world, no kidding! This is after having tried them in many other homes and restaurants. We bake in bulk – two full trays and they don’t even last 2 days. Just remember to keep it simple – organic sweet potatoes, olive oil and salt
  • Also instant pot cooking has revolutionized and eased our cooking process.

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Any other benefits observed?

Alright, this is gross but needs to be explained. Have you ever seen a healthy dog poop? The dog smells for sometime, finds it’s spot and finishes his/her job in a few seconds. Pooping for us humans too should be the same. Since we don’t have to smell and locate spots, we should be done in a few short minutes too. If you are not grossed out yet, how could I disappoint. Chitra attended a workshop by Tias Little in which he briefly spoke about human poop. Human poop is a daily indicator to the wellbeing of your systems. According to Mr. Little, your poop should ideally be one long piece and float in water (in western toilets)! Sticky, broken or other forms is a sign that your body is not functioning fine. By the time I hit day 14 on whole30, I experience what a healthy dog experiences multiple times in a day! I hope to erase some of that visual with pictures of the best behaved male member of our family – Bambi Menon.

I travel a bit, so is Whole30 feasible?

The first time we explored Whole30, I was a worried traveler. Now I am a Whole30 travel pro! For breakfast, I have located Italian restaurants, in airports, that can serve me veg omelettes made in olive oil with no dairy. It does become easy, when I tell the waiter that I am allergic to dairy products, they are also extra cautious. I do stop by Whole Foods and pick up almond butter, apples, bananas for multi day trips. All hotels have small refrigerators and offer paper plates and spoons etc. 

For lunch, I eat at client cafeterias from their salad bar or for luncheon/dinner meets select restaurants where I can have a good steak or fish with roasted or steamed vegetables. The salad/hot bar at Whole Foods has a few options as well. If eating dinner alone, I have begun to like organic cut peeled carrots/celery/baby cucumber, guacamole and canned sardines. This has now become second nature and I would do this even in the most fancy hotels. 

RxBars are a great emergency option and I always carry a couple with me. Two bars give you enough boost when you don’t have time or running late for meetings. Remember RxBars have a peanut option (brown color pack), that is not compliant. Most airport stores carry raw nut snack bags. It must be raw, because most of the nut snack bags have multiple types of oils or even sweeteners in the ingredients. Caution: RxBars are quite chewy and sticky, so give yourself enough time to enjoy them and make sure your teeth don’t have any left overs. You don’t want your clients getting distracted with colored remnants on your teeth!

There are some airports or certain terminals where you really can’t find any options. Stick to bananas and apples sold at Starbucks and other stores too. I hate these events but they don’t happen too often. For Chicago (ORD & MDW), Minneapolis (MSP) and Phoenix (PHX) I can designate myself as the Whole30 guru. I know which restaurants to visit and what to order. Some staff now recognize me and know my ‘usual order’. 

Many of my work colleagues joke when I walk into morning meetings with my Almond Butter, banana and apple. They find it amusing and like in my boarding school days, I don’t care much. They don’t realize I am experiencing something ‘better than sex!!’  😉

Solutions for your sugar fix

When not on Whole30, sweets are my Achilles’ heel. I am unable to control my portions and overshoot my calorie and sugar intake dramatically. Being on this plan has not exactly fixed this problem, but I am consuming “healthy natural sugars”. This is how I convince myself and Chitra. 

Dates, dried figs, apricots and raisins with nuts and seeds (cashew, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds etc) are my saviour. Sometimes I also switch to grapes + nuts or grapes + almond butter. 

If I have “behaved” well at home, I get treated to a fig and walnuts instant pot sweet dish. It is super awesome. Ingredients are dried figs, walnuts and clarified butter (ghee). There are other similar versions with apricots etc. 

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What do I miss the most when truly on whole30?

Salty snacks!  You can have salted pistachios or Makhane but they are not a great substitute for the crunch, ease and fulfillment of a banana/potato chip. There are many options people suggest but they don’t fulfill my salty snack cravings. If any of you have other ideas, please feel free to share. 

In conclusion

If you ever want to experience the feeling of a light and tight body, you have to experience Whole30. Do it diligently for a life-changing experience!

In my Client Partner role, I never want to be in a meeting with any of my internal or external stakeholders when I am not exhibiting high energy. Whether these sessions are early mornings, post lunch or at night. 

What’s the connection to peace? When you can start your day feeling energetic and cleansed, you feel at peace and exude this energy to everyone around you. 

Are you ready to dedicate just 30 days for a reset to your life?

#whole30 #whole30advocate #whole30ontravel #whole30travelguru

Related data points:

 

“Times of India (TOI) front full page obituary in color!” Major Menon in all his glory.

Papa

Papa, Dad, Major, Abbe Buddhe (hey, old man!) are some ways my brother and I addressed our father. This is a short, simple and uncomplicated tribute to someone whose life and actions can never be described as short, simple and uncomplicated. I present to you Major Rajendran Gopalan Menon on his first death anniversary.

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He left home, without his family’s approval, to join the Indian army as a jawan (junior most soldier). Went on to be a commissioned officer, was ‘Blue in Boxing’ at the academy, graduate of the Indian Army Staff College and also earned his Army mountaineering badge. He was an obstinate and difficult officer to manage but his regiment troops loved him. Very few officers would have won a popularity contest against him. From our standpoint he was meant to be in the army and should have ended his working career with them. However, that was not to be. His ego and his brutally honest rebuttals with seniors resulted in him taking pre-mature retirement after having served for 23 years. He had never spoken to us about his adventures in the Indo-Pak war or the Bodo militancy. Even Johnnie Walker failed us in this mission. 

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His work life outside the army was equally adventurous. He started working for the King of Jamnagar (in the state of Gujarat) and was responsible for the administration of many palaces, multiple properties and innumerable assets. He had won the trust of the King, but also made many enemies. This led to an attempt on his life in the open streets of Jamnagar. In true Bollywood movie style, he was attacked by a rival group in broad daylight. They, however, failed to smash his head with a metal rod, when on two occasions he barely managed to block the strike with his hand. This resulted in him gaining notoriety in the community and among his rivals as a tough ‘son of a bitch’.  

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Later in the state of Maharashtra, he created a niche in the industrial circle as a fearless front for companies dealing with rogue unions. He respected the unions till they followed the law and worked for the well being of the workers & the company. His claim to fame was a result of his courage, deep understanding of labor laws and wins against Datta Samant unions. During one of my Diwali vacations, I was home from boarding school (grade 7) and witnessed Liberty Oil Mill’s (dad’s employer) labor force on strike. These were violent times, with many managers receiving threats and some physically assaulted during their commute to the factory. Local police enforcements were called in and all managers commuted to the factory and back in armored vehicles. But not Major, he would walk (from the staff quarters) to work and ensure my mom’s blood pressure remained elevated. Late one night, he received a call from the security office, informing him about an increase in the unrest and injuries suffered by a few of the security guards. He immediately got into action and it probably was his army training, because I saw no hesitation in his mind about what he should be doing. He decided to walk to the factory once again, but this time with his Sony walkman, headphones and a torch light. I remember asking him to call for the armored vehicle and take the safe way to work. He simply stated “Beta (son), these jokers are cowards and I cannot let them think I am scared.” The walkman started playing music in full volume and he left home. I went to a window in the house, from where we could see the factory at a distance and joined my mother. Till date, I have not asked her what she thought or if she had even tried to stop him from leaving the house. In later days, I heard from many folks about how Major Menon walked right through the mob, with them shouting abuses, wielding instruments meant to cause bodily harm. He kept pointing his finger to the walkman and gesturing that he could not hear anything. In the town of Shahapur (in Thane district), Major Menon became a legend that night. There were many such stories that I would hear and be in awe of dad. Till his final days, some of the union members visited him or called mummy to check on his welfare and pay respect. It’s hard for me to think, that these very people had threatened and abused him.

He was not all legend material. He had many flaws and had caused deep pain to his immediate family (my mother, my brother and me) and had done that very consistently. However this is the one time, that I am giving him a free pass. This is my dad in all his glory.

I was very shy to talk to anyone over the phone. I had some form of phobia during my high school/college years. The only call I would make with full confidence was to dad when he would be at work. Answering my first question “What are you doing papa?” he would reply “I am masturbating!” He would follow that with a loud laugh and later comment about how lame my conversation starter was. This had become a running joke between the two of us. During his last year he was bed ridden, unable to talk, totally consumed by Alzheimer’s and I would manage to get a smile on his face with his very particular sentence. Guess this was dad’s way of showing Alzheimer’s the middle finger and I loved it.

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You release him into a party or gathering and he would quickly turn into a live wire. He excelled at being the Master of Ceremonies and had the ability to involve everyone to participate in games, jokes and walk away from the event feeling good about themselves. His system did need Johnnie Walker and other associates to get warmed up. There were many occasions, when after a party, he would not remember anything and would not care for it. I recall one such event when after a party at our home, Major was not to be found. Mummy, our community security guard and I looked all around the house and did not find him. We went over to some of our neighbors, who were also at the party, wondering if they were having an after party. However he was not to be found. We had an elementary school, a company club house and a soccer field across our house. Now smaller groups (many of whom were also drunk) were trying to locate Major. We finally spotted him sprawled flat on the soccer field. It was a crisp Indian winter early morning and he must have decided to recount his days as the battalion soccer goal keeper! It took some effort getting him back home (he was a large man). However, after his sleep his memory was wiped clean and he made it to work dot on time. I never attribute it to his antics, but both his sons have never had alcohol. He, however, never failed to take credit for his parenting techniques. 

Watching cricket on television with him was a treat. You could turn off the volume and just listen to his commentary. I was fortunate enough to witness many such games. I remember this 1996 world cup game between India and Pakistan. Aamir Sohail (a Pakistani opening batsmen) was on fire and he was dispatching Indian bowlers all over the park. Venkatesh Prasad (Indian medium pace bowler) apart from being hit for a boundary also got some verbal chatter from Aamir and in the very next ball Venkatesh got him out (clean bowled) and gave an equally fiery send off. Papa erupted with such a war cry that would have brought down the entire apartment building. Thankfully, the Indian team went on to win that game and everyone slept peacefully in the Menon household. 

He was a dreamer and he dreamt big. Life for him was always ‘king size’ and he was a total optimist. You show him the worst case scenario and he had the ability to think about a positive outcome. This was a trait that gave him success in life and also led him to many a financial debacle. You give him Rupees 100 and he would have planned to spend 300. That would not be spent on self or his immediate family, but for the community at large and non-family members. During his last years, when Alzheimer’s had not consumed him fully, I would joke about his obituary and what he would want me to write for him. His reply as always was ‘king size’…“Son, I want a Times of India (TOI) front full page color photo and glowing words about me!”. Just for reference TOI is like the NYT in India. I would laugh and ask him to transfer the money in advance for it. 

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This was my Papa, Dad, Major, Abbe Buddhe (hey, old man!) for you.  As I type these sentences his smile, his warmth, his colorful language, his positive attitude to anything that life could present flashes in-front of me. I am certain if he is reading this post, he would be shaking his head and teasing me for being a chicken and taking the easy way out.

I sincerely request all readers to please share this post of mine and get him the views he would so enjoy. Thanks in advance to each one of you. 

Related data points:

“Yes, you can” own a home and 2019 is the year for it!

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Chitra and I had a child marriage, so we joke. She was 24 and I was 25. We had not lived away from our parents, we had not had any prior relationships, we were very naive, and we started with a zero bank balance. So if we could manage to buy our first home a year after marriage, I bet you can too.

It was 1997, we were in the second year of our MBA school. Chitra would, at times, drive her dad’s 118 NE (Fiat car) to our school. We took many drives along Palm Beach road in Nerul, New Mumbai, India – back then it would be scenic, quiet and romantic. A landmark we crossed often was, NRI Seawoods Complex (an upmarket residential community) and one day I remember telling her “I will own three homes and one will be in Seawoods!”. Important to state here, I was a very big Amitabh Bachchan (a Bollywood superstar) fan and had seen movies like Deewar countless times. If anyone remembers the scene where Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) gifts his mom an entire high rise, where she had once worked as an hourly wage laborer. I certainly had a theatrical flare brewing within me.

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My obsession of owning a home dates back to my high school and college years. Our family had gone through many financial turmoils and we would move from one rental to the next. Most of my friends back then had lived in one or two homes since birth. My ambition of owning three homes would have certainly seemed far fetched to Chitra. But then we were young, madly in love and said “yes” to everything the other person desired! Poor girl, she did not know what she was signing up for. 

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We both started our first job(s) in June 1998, got engaged in January 1999 and married in April 2000. If you are a couple making the decision of owning a home, I can’t emphasize how important it is for both parties to be totally sold to that goal. My family experiences had driven me to the point of being obsessive in chasing this goal. Chitra, however, came from a different background. She had never witnessed financial upheavals in her life. Before marriage, she had probably moved homes three times and owning a home was never in her immediate goals list. Visiting places, having a good time with me and being able to shop freely 😉 would have been her ideas of newly wedded bliss. She, however, bought into my dream and looking back I don’t think I gave her a choice. So Chitra, here I publicly announce “you made my dream come true and I shall always be indebted to you!”. 

I will not bore you all with our hardships of living on ultra savings mode during the first year of marriage or being obstinate about not taking a single Rupee from any of our family members. But here are some stories which we can never forget and will hopefully humor & encourage some of you on your path to first time home ownership.

Let me jump straight to 2001 – we were ready to buy our home. We selected a property and started our home loan application with ICICI Bank. Interestingly, I had signed their Credit Cards business division as one of Blue Dart’s (my employer) largest banking clients in the country. Also, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan was their brand ambassador, appearing in many TV commercials. Their marketing message was something in the lines of “aapka sapna, humara sapna” (“your dreams are our dreams”). So it was a shock, when ICICI declined our loan application a few days before our scheduled purchase date. Our dreams were being shattered due to a “technical error”. With assistance from my clients in ICICI, I got the email address of their Home Loan division chief and sent him a strong yet emotional plea. To my surprise, our home loan application got approved in 48 hours after sending that email. Mr. Bachchan continued to be one of my favorite heroes for many more years.

In 2002, Chitra started a new job with Euro RSCG, an advertisement agency. This move would bring us more money into the bank and help ease our month end agony of making ends meet. On her first day at work, their CEO had called for an employee town hall. The big announcement was that they had lost their biggest client ‘Phillips’ and operations were to get challenging. Chitra vividly remembers walking over to her manager’s office – Suman – and enquiring about the financial stability of the agency. Suman had laughed and stated “you don’t have to worry till they start cutting back on toilet paper!”. In later months, he also quoted “When you first buy a home, you feel broke. In a few months, you get used to being broke” A true leader and motivator! 🙂

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I had two close friends – Raj and Amal. Both these guys were single, lived with their parents (very common in India) and were unable to relate to my life. We all worked in the same office and spent a lot of time together in our commute to and from work. While I would talk to Chitra about depleting laundry supplies, groceries and bank accounts, they would make me the butt of their jokes. Many of those jokes would bring us all to tears. I had little then but that laughter helped me keep light of the situation. Life has made us all busy, but I can never forget both these jokers. Especially Raj, because he, like me, would be short on cash almost around the same time as me. Did I mention, that he had a very colorful lifestyle! Some Fridays, the three of us would visit a restaurant next to our office – Tunga Paradise – to eat some non-vegetarian food. It was a luxury for all of us and a break from the vegetarian food served in the office canteen. Our order used to be pretty standard – butter chicken, another meat dish and one veg dish or dal (lentil). At the end of our meal, the server would ask us for “any dessert” and our answer would always be “no, thank you”. He would get the bill with sugar coated fennel seeds. We would take time to pay, but very diligently finish off the sugar coated fennel seeds. That would be our dessert and not having to pay for it made it sweeter! A few visits later, the server started presenting the bill with very small portions of our ‘free dessert’. That would not stop us from asking for more and these sessions continued till we all moved on from that office. I hope some day we can all visit that restaurant and have some ‘free dessert’ together!

The only furniture in our new home after a year was a 7 x 7 feet custom ordered solid wood bed. We had designed it from scratch and the day it got delivered, I truly felt like a king. Even the mattress had to be custom ordered and like my brother would say “yeh bed nahin, ship hain!” (this is not a bed, it is a ship). We had bought a big home – it was a penthouse, with three bedrooms and three full baths and three large balconies. However, we didn’t rush to furnish it. We both left for work very early and returned equally late. The one thing we wanted was a comfortable bed, and my ‘ship’ rested us well. I can’t emphasize on how much I appreciate Chitra, for adjusting to these decisions. I may not have been so appreciative then but looking back, she was an angel. Ok honey, you have done enough damage since then with your shopping sprees! 

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Buying a car or a home? Early on in our lives, we had the choice of buying a car. We decided not to go that path and saved up for our home. In 2003, we had reached a stable financial position and were considering ownership of a car. I am a “BIG” car enthusiast and could not have been happier researching my options. After taking into account the monthly car payment, maintenance, parking fees, etc it came down to petrol (gas) cost. We had shortlisted the Tata Indica (diesel) and Maruti Suzuki Wagon R. Not able to make our choice, I took to some live data gathering! Getting stuck in Mumbai traffic was a daily occurrence on my commute to work. Whenever our auto (a three wheel taxi) would stop next to a Wagon R or Indica, I would knock on the window and motion the owner to roll the window down. Answering my questions the proud owner would share their pleasure of owning their car and specifically share with me mileage their car would give for a liter of petrol/diesel consumed. We were just a few weeks from a purchase decision when my company decided to relocate me to Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. Today on Indian roads you see the best of  car brands but every time I see an Indica or Wagon R, it brings a smile to my face. A big ‘cheer’ to all Indica and Wagon R owners.

Did our decision to buy a home so early on pay off? 

A definite and resounding “YES”! In 10 years our first home’s value appreciated 329%. We have since then bought and invested in four properties. Do share with me your stories. Let 2019 bring you good health and memorable moments in your home!

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Are you a ‘Human Manatee’?

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Our son, Yash, is an animal enthusiast and would go to any extent to observe and learn about their habitats. When he was seven, he agreed to wake up at 3am – while on vacation – and drive 2 hours to take a kayaking tour with alligators in the wild. I vividly remember this because it took a gentle whisper and he sprang out of bed all excited. Wish he would do that on school days!

For Yash’s 9th birthday, we had decided to take him to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. A few years back, in an inflight magazine I had read about Crystal Rivers, Florida. A small city, two hours north of Orlando, known to host for Manatees in the Crystal River. The city is located around Kings Bay, which have a number of springs, ensuring that the water temperature is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. Hence, in the winter, manatees move from the cool waters of Gulf of Mexico to Crystal Rivers. This is the only place in the USA where humans are legally allowed to observe Manatees up-close in their natural habitat.

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We had booked a 3 hour tour with ‘Fun 2 Dive – Swim with Manatees’ and after a brief training session were in the boat with our crew, looking for these gentle giants. River Manatees don’t have any natural predators and their number one enemy is boat rotor blades. They eat only greens, sleep 12 hours a day, swim, rest and make babies. No wonder they live long lives!

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Honestly, what amazed me the most about Manatees, was that they did not care about the large number of humans around them – entering their natural habitat. They went about their lives — eating, sleeping, swimming and being with their loved ones — as if we never existed. They were happy! This, to me, was the biggest take away. Can we humans also remain unaffected by our surroundings, people, events and positively carry on with life in a happy state? I believe there are such people, who I would like to call ‘Human Manatees’. Psychologists from the University of California who study happiness found that genetics and life circumstances only account for about 50% of a person’s happiness. So these ‘Human Manatees’ clearly have developed traits and ways to practice them always.

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” —Benjamin Franklin

I classify myself in the category of folks who are NOT ‘Human Manatees’. For people like me, it‘s important to identify any negative drivers that adversely impact my happiness index. We all exhibit behaviors that can be recognized by ourself or loved ones as signs of not being in a happy state. Each of us will have specific signs and it is in our best interest to be aware of them. Sharing a few indicators that I have come to track for myself – also it is appropriate for me to thank my wife, who promptly alerts me when she begins to observe a pattern. 

  • Indicator 1: Eating excessively is my first marker. I may not be eating ‘junk’ food, but that is my way of trying to mask this indicator. On a bad day, for example, I may end up eating a dozen ’dates’ after a good dinner. 
  • Indicator 2: Typically, 6 hours of sleep works best for me. Then there are times when I tend to sleep longer and despite the longer sleep cycle, I wake up lacking that purpose and drive.
  • Indicator 3: Procrastinate many activities. These activities may not be critical but the fact that I have a list piling up, bogs me down.

These indicators will vary person to person. My dad used to watch TV  and play cards (the game – patience) to de-stress himself. Since 1972, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted the General Social Survey to evaluate the social climate in the United States. Regardless of education, income, marital status or age, happier people surveyed watched about 30 percent less television each week than unhappier participants. On average, the happier respondents watched 19 hours of television, compared to 25 hours for the unhappy set. 

In an ideal world I would also be a ‘Human Manatee’ not impacted by the circus around me. Until then, let me continue improving my skills for early identification and early remedial action. Cheers to all those people on this journey to being a ‘Human Manatee’.

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