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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

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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.

 

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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.

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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:

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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. 

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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.

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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!

Related data points:

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’.

Related data points:

 

60 minutes every week can save you $500 or more a year!

If straight lines were not your thing in art class, this could be a difficult activity to pursue. We had curvy mohawk grass lines after Chitra, my wife, completed her first attempt at mowing our lawn! 

Having lived in town home communities we were spoilt by the services covered in our monthly assessment fee – like lawn mowing and snow removal. So a rude awakening awaited us, when we moved to our single family home in December 2013. Our first winter in the new home was not kind either and with my travel schedule, it was Chitra dealing with some heavy duty snow removal (we had not bought our snowblower then). So when Spring greeted us, we were quick to hire a lawn maintenance service provider. Their job entailed mowing the grass, trimming all the edges and clearing  refuse from the lawn. This service costed us $30 every week/visit. Their crew typically had 2 team members and finished the job in under 30 minutes. 

In 2016 we had new neighbors whom we got to know very well. I would observe each member of their family take turns every week in mowing their lawn. This also included their kids, then in middle and high school. To me it was a good activity for the kids to burn excess energy and help them learn a chore, that could be a source for earning some pocket money in future years.

With inspiration from our neighbors, in 2017 we invested in a lawn mower and trimmer.  Soon we picked up other supplies for the trade – refuse bags (if you are not mulching your cut grass), city pick-up stickers, gasoline can and gasoline. 

On day one the pressure was high with wifey, kiddo and our pet dog all focussing their eyes on me. I too was dressed for the job, with my gardening hat, gloves and a confident look. That confidence was soon tested because my machine would not start as easily as my car. You got to pull on this starter rope, which revs up with engine. It took a few pulls and a review of the owner’s manual, before it started. The first day was all exciting with everyone wanting to use the machine a bit – including my 8 year old son! We are not a big DIY family and the satisfaction we got to see a our maintained yard was very rewarding.

2018 was our second summer and I have begun to appreciate the value of being able to mow the lawn. Keeping the monetary savings aside, you can monitor the health of our lawn more effectively. You identify defect areas early on and can take remedial measures. Occasionally I have been my son’s hero for being able to find his lost/forgotten toys from our yard. There is the opportunity to talk to your neighbors or regular walkers – yes it does help you being more social. Don’t get me started on the health benefits of being outdoors & adding to your daily step count.

I say to all, if allergies are not an issue for you, get out and mow your own lawn. We have a 0.5 acre yard and I can complete my mowing and trimming routine between 45 to 60 minutes. My son, now 9, has had one training session with me and we hope he picks this chore up in the coming years. That is a “big hope”! 🙂

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Other related data points

  • Many of my purchases are based on recommendations by Consumer Reports
  • Toro 22” Personal Pace Smartstow Lawnmower: $374 + tax
  • Black & Decker 20V Electric String Trimmer: $89 + tax