People have taken up to new activities during the lock down. Some are baking breads and cooking sumptuous meals, some are creating art and some others are writing, a friend of mine has been taken up to playing the virtual Kalimba and another friend is catching up on TV shows with her mother, and some others are just spending meaningful time with their families.
Not that work or domestic chores have decreased during the lock down. But the zero commute time, having no where to go to and few things to do outside homes has expanded the leisure hours. People have discovered ways to occupy their new found leisure hours.
This reminded me of economist Keynes’ essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.’ Writing in 1930, he observed that the technological progress and mass production systems of the modern era has brought in multi-fold improvements in economic productivity and a general increase in standards of life (in the Western world), and it will only continue to improve in the coming years. In a hundred years or less, Keynes contemplated aloud, mankind would have solved the ‘economic problem.’ Economic pursuits would no longer be the central pillar of the common man’s life as economic abundance would have been assured by technology, mass production and compound interest.
With the advantage of hindsight, it’s easy to come up with a variety of reasons why “Keynes’ future” did not pan out. But that’s not the point I brought this up.
In the essay, Keynes writes that the age of abundance, when it comes, could only be enjoyed by “those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life…“
Some of the people I talked about in the opening of this blog belong to that category which Keynes writes about.
This morning I was reading ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a winner of the Pulitzer. A particular section fascinated me for it exhibited the effective use of metaphor to break-down a complex issue.
1860’s America. The major political issue of the era was the question of slavery. The great debate was whether slavery’s expansion be curtailed only to states where it currently existed or should it be allowed to expand unfettered to new territories (joining the union).
Lincoln’s Snake Metaphor
Lincoln, among the contenders for the Republican nomination for the Presidential election, maintained that slavery, as immoral as it was, may continue to exist in states where it was currently present while it must not be allowed to expand into newer territories. He struck a balance between two competing goals of sustaining the solidarity of the Union and keeping a check on the menace of slavery.
Abe had to communicate this position to the American public, that included a range of positions on the slavery question. To this purpose, in a speech to a overflowing City Hall at Hartford, Connecticut, Lincoln employed the metaphor of snakes:
If I saw a venomous snake crawling on the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them…
…But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide!…
…The new territories are the newly made bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not.
Lincoln enabled his audience to think through a constitutionally and a morally complex issue of the expansion of slavery in common words like venomous snakes (slavery), children (American people) and beds (territories). The analogy was simple and effective. Contrast this to how Henry Seward, Lincoln’s peer and a front runner for the Republican nomination, articulated the same stance. Seward warned that if slavery were allowed to expand into new territories like Kansas, his countrymen would have “introduced a Trojan horse” into the new territory.
Who do you thing was more persuasive? Lincoln or Seward?
Doris captures in a sentence what lacked in Seward’s approach, “While Seward’s classically trained fellow senators immediately grasped his intent, the Trojan horse image carried neither the instant accessibility of Lincoln’s snake-in-the-bed story nor its memorable originality.”
Lincoln regarded educating public opinion as the greatest challenge for a leader in democratic society. This stands true for micro democratic spaces like home and work.
I detest fads and short-lived trends. Many a time, I keep away from something only because the said thing is a fad, and not because of an informed choice taken after weighing the inherent merits or demerits. And so, I did not care about the Dalgona Coffee. That was until this morning, when I read about it on the New York Times (along with recipe and instructions) which characterized the Dalgona Coffee as a “pantry-friendly way to try something new when the days can seem all too repetitive.”
I gathered a bowl and a spoon. As instructed, I added two spoons of instant coffee, a similar amount of sugar, and two spoons of hot water. I used the spoon to whip. A couple of minutes into whipping, there was a dark chocolate colored thick liquid in my bowl. (Beginning stages of a project, there is abundant energy and optimism.)
Five minutes later, I still did not see any sign that more effort would result in the creamy light brown texture recipe. My bowl contained a dark chocolate colored thick liquid. My mind conjured up reasons for why its not turning out right – too much water maybe or probably not the right kind of coffee powder. (In the absence of evident progress, self-doubt crept in and my ‘self’ began to attribute reasons for the impending failure.)
My wrist began to ache. I had almost decided to settle for the thick dark brown liquid. (With waning energy levels, I looked forward to making peace with my existing reality.)
My mother, who had just walked into the kitchen, peered into my bowl and asked me to keep going for a few more minutes. She also suggested that I minimize the downward pressure into the bowl and focus more on the whipping action. This reduced the effort I was expending and enabled me to keep going without significant strain. (In the absence of conviction and faith in our goals, external agents can be a blessing who may bestow us with confidence to stay on our path, and also share a useful tip or two.)
Three minutes later, I saw the first strains of Dalgona – light brown creamy mixture. I was reinvigorated. My whips grew confident and stylish. (The visual evidence of success and the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel made me confident about achieving the goal.)
Two minutes later, I had attained the desired light brown creamy mixture. It was like a miracle. Only a few minutes ago, this outcome did not seem possible at all, there were no signs, and I was ready to give-up. And now, it was here.
Indeed a simple lesson, but one I forget too often.
So keep whipping. When in doubt, seek help. But keep faith and continue whipping!
I know few political leaders, but those whom I know of (through books or films) inspire and fascinate me like no other. People from other walks of life pale in comparison. Among these include Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, John F Kennedy and a couple others. Also, Elizabeth McCord, if we include fictional characters.
I was reminded of this today, because if you’ve been following the US Primaries, you might know that Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic race for the President. While it was expected, given his recent losses in key States, it was heart-breaking nevertheless. And it was not the first time. Sanders was also one of those political figures who fascinated me.
I started following Bernie back in 2016 when he faced-off against Hillary Clinton. At 78 years, I’m awed by Bernie’s energy and commitment. He ran his campaign on a simple but a fundamental promise of free college education, affordable health care and fair minimum wages.
Even as I wanted to write about Sanders, I realized that I knew very little about Joe Biden – other than that he was Vice President in the Obama administration and Obama once mentioned that Joe made him a better President. A google search, a couple of clicks, and a few minutes of engrossed reading later, I feel like I know Joe Biden really well.
Joe was first elected to the Senate from the state of Delaware in 1973 and he remained Senator for the next 36 years until 2009 when he resigned to become the Vice President (remember Frank Underwood in House of Cards?). In 1972, when he was 28, he lost his first wife and daughter to a car accident, just after being elected to the Senate. He threw his hat in the Presidential race in 1988 and again in 2008 before pulling out. In 2015, he lost his son Beau to brain cancer.
Biden and Obama did not always tick off as running mates or in the White House. They seem to come off as very different individuals. Yet they had a long successful stint together. Obama and other senior advisers in his administration have always emphasized on the value he adds to the administration. Obama paid a glowing tribute to Biden when he said, “The best thing about Joe is that when we get everybody together, he really forces people to think and defend their positions, to look at things from every angle, and that is very valuable for me.” Biden was an integral of part of Obama’s ‘team of rivals.’
There is a lot that we can potentially learn from political leaders. More on this on another post.
On other news, I completed my first little project on data science using Python. It was an analysis of a Netflix dataset. Well, I found out that Pakistan and India make longer movies than any other country in the world. Read more about it here: Data Science Learning Diary 1
While food is a big part of Chef, I’d never put it in the same space as Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman or Big Night, whose characterization of food and cooking is much deeper and nuanced. Chef is a perfectly enjoyable film with delectable cooking scenes, a road trip on a food truck, a loyal friendship, and great father-son scenes. Some of my most cherished moments in the film are the father son moments like when Percy, the son, helps Casper, the chef and the father in the film, set up a Twitter account and when Casper wants Percy to experience some of the best food he’s had – Andouille sausage, Beignets, and Cuban sandwiches.
But there is something else that Chef reminded me about. It the was its close similarities with Ratatouille and a discussion on the ‘role of a critic‘ on the Ratatouille episode of This Movie Changed Me podcast with New York Times’ chief film critic, A.O.Scott.
The critic plays an important part in Chef. In fact, what sets off the story in Chef is when the renowned food critic, Ramesy, in his review of his dinner at the restaurant Casper works in, characterizes Casper’s food as “insecure and unimaginative…a needy aunt that gives you $5 every time you see her in the hopes that you’ll like her.”
This makes Casper furious and he hits back at Ramesy. The artist questions the critic:
What do you do? You sit and you eat and you vomit those words back. To make people laugh. You know how hard I work for this shit? Do you know how hard my whole staff works? It fucking hurts when you write that shit!
A.O. Scott, a critic himself, provides an answer to the above in the podcast, as he talks about Anton Ego’s character in Ratatouille:
There’s often a feeling that what we do and what we’re trying to do is just not really — not only not appreciated, but also, just fundamentally not — people just don’t get it.
And I think that the movie ends up being an appreciation and a defense of what Ego does; what criticism is; why it’s important to the arts and to artists,
And then he elaborates on the role of the critic:
And the customers who keep going in and eating this lousy food are, in a way, seduced by this reputation and are missing what’s really going on and have maybe lost sight of the real possibilities of quality and innovation and creativity that still exists in cooking. And it’s (Anton) Ego’s job, it’s the critic’s job, to be the radar that detects those things. And I take that to mean anything that comes along that is exciting, challenging — that fulfills some of the possibilities of creativity; of human or, for that matter, of rodent creativity. The job of critics is to discover that and to be able to make a case for it, for the public.
The two films also have a similarity in the antagonists – Skinner, who runs Gusteau’s retaurant, in Ratatouile and Revis, owner of the restaurant where Casper worked, in Chef. Both characters compromise art and creativity in pursuit of commercial success. Revis forces Casper to serve the crowd pleasing favorites – Caviar Egg, scallop, french onion soup, chocolate lava cake (which eventually led to the scathing review by Ramsey). Skinner launches frozen food products like ‘Gusteau’s Microwave Burritos‘ and ‘Gusteau’s French Pizza‘ (admonished by Anton Ego) to capitalize on Gusteau’s reputation.
In fact, the similarities between the two films go further (spoiler alert). Both have a similar thread in their closing acts: the critic funds and partners the setting up of restaurants with the chefs (artists).
Well, the next time your friends comment on your snobbishness with respect to films or music, you know what to say.
Over the past week, locked down at home, I’ve gotten to observe myself. I noticed that I was always rushing through my work and never seemed to have enough time. I manage to complete my tasks but I was rushing through it. This pattern was true across – professional work, while learning Python, blogging, or even read the new. This pattern had two major effects – one, the quality of my work suffered, if I’d given myself more time to do my tasks I could’ve come with better analysis or improved my learning outcomes or deeper thoughts; two, the act of constantly rushing caused mental stress which led to a feeling of a burn out.
When I thought through this, I realized I was not giving enough time for my high priority tasks. Instead, I was expending valuable time on non value adding activities like frequently thumbing through social media, idling or feeling unmotivated or battling self-doubt. Here’s the remedy: In the coming week, I’m going to deliberately give myself more time for my priority tasks. I’m also going to ensure that I put in consistent focus throughout the allocated time.
I’m reminded of a gym analogy. The principles for work-out effectiveness seem to apply to mental tasks too. It was one of the work-out guide videos on YouTube. The trainer advised that for maximum work-out effectiveness, each ‘rep‘ be long and consistent rather than rushing through it. He also elaborated on the underlying logic. The effectiveness of a single ‘rep’ is a not only a function of ‘effort‘ but also of ‘time‘. When we rush through a rep, though the effort exerted at a single point in time is higher the time elapsed shortens, pulling down the effectiveness. I find this very similar to me rushing through mental tasks, the ensuing mental stress and the lesser work quality.
I’ve spent the major productive part my day punching, modifying, deleting and re-punching codes. I completed the first module on my Python course and I took up a tiny personal project to keep my interest going. What’s more interesting that movies! I found a reliable Netflix data set on Kaggle. Even for a simply analysis, I typed long-winded codes where I’m sure fewer lines could’ve sufficed. My code wouldn’t work as expected until debugged it ten times or more. On more than an occasion, I doubted if it was all really worth it – the basic analysis I was doing now could be done in an Excel, with much less effort. But I tried to reason. This was just the beginning. I was trying to build familiarity with a coding language, and as I improve my skills I’d be able to perform more complex tasks. In addition, the dopamine rush I experience every time I get a code to work makes it worthwhile.
I’ve noticed, in general, that often times my mind sets me up for failure. It works on a logic from an absurd premise. A point in case here is that I expected grand results from something I’ve been learning for only seven days. When I don’t see those results I get disheartened and give up on the project entirely. I have let this absurd thought process ruin more than a fair share of my projects. Well, not this time.
In the present times of anxiety and curtailed freedoms, films can be therapeutic. I’ve put down a little list of three films that are in a way connected to the lock down. They may lighten our spirit, offer us hope and even inspire some weekend cooking.
The film’s protagonist, Victor Navorski, can teach us a lot about living through a lock down. Victor, a middle-aged man travelling from a little eastern European country, lands in the US only to be “locked down” in the John. F. Kennedy International Airport by the airport authorities. Due to a quirk in the immigration system, Victor can neither enter New York nor take a flight back home, but is forced to spend the next few months staying at the airport. Victor doesn’t grudge his unfortunate position nor does he give up, he simply goes about his life at the airport and quite joyfully so!
Of the films I’ve watched, this film encapsulates the mood of a lock down more than any other. Set during World War II, amidst the German occupation of Guernsey (an island located in the English Channel), a group of friends form a literary society that helps them survive through the military occupation. The occupation entailed restriction in movement, food rationing, meeting of no more than three people. And yet this little group of friends discover comfort in literature and companionship. The film might inspire you to start your own book club now, a virtual one may be. Watch the film to find out how they ended up with a strange name for their society!
The lock down has enabled some of us to appreciate the importance of the simple and the little things in life. Little Forest is a soothing meditative film on the life of the young Ichiko in a small Japanese village. Ichiko lives a solitary life in tune with the seasons of nature – farming, cooking and eating, and meeting a friend or two in the village. The kitchen scenes occupy major screen time in the film and it invokes in us an appreciation of fresh ingredients and cooking in general.
There is also a Part II titled Little Forest: Winter/Spring (2015), which is a must watch if you liked the first one. Unfortunately, both the films are not available on Netflix or Prime. Also, make sure to look for the right version of the film. There was also a recent Korean version based with the same title and setting, which I have not watched yet.
It is appalling that despite having the whole day to myself (with low to moderate work commitments) I have done very little today. The morning began well, as I worked to the ambient sounds of the streets of Kamata (Tokyo), a library, and a cafe. However, as the day progressed, I became anxious, distracted and frustrated. Every ten minutes, I thumbed through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Quite a few on the web concur that the one great thing about being locked down is that there is no more FOMO. It makes a lot of sense. But another kind of FOMO has developed – FOMO of making the most of the lock down days. The apparent source of my anxiety and frustration was that I wasn’t making the most of my lock down days – not just in terms of terms doing productive work but even catching up on films and books.
Yet I’m torn between the striving for productivity and just being. May be a middle path would be more acceptable to me. Dividing the day into two: one for productivity and the other for simple pleasures and just being.
And just a few minutes back on a call with my friend whining about my dull unproductive day, she reminded me that we should be grateful that we have jobs that pay during the pandemic. That was indeed a soothing thought.
PS: I’m self-aware that this blog is uninspiring and boring at present. But I’m going to keep doing this everyday in the hope that something worthwhile might come out of this eventually.
Now is an interesting time to be alive, if one’s employment, financials and health are reasonably secure. I have been meaning to write ever since the 21 day lock down was implemented in India. Only I hadn’t. And then I read The Quarantine Diaries this morning: “As the coronavirus continues to spread and confine people largely to their homes, many are filling pages with their experiences of living through a pandemic. Their diaries are told in words and pictures: pantry inventories, window views, questions about the future, concerns about the present.” These are interesting times and I had to keep a write.
It’s been exactly a week since the lock down was implemented in India and this is what I’ve been up to in the past week:
I have been reading news, research and articles on COVID-19. Nothing too much but just enough to have an idea. I was pleasantly surprised that the models the researchers simulated and the news articles quoted were an application of what I had learnt in a systems thinking course back in b-school. A course I had thoroughly enjoyed. In The World After Corona Virus, Yuval Noah Harari hypothesizes on the new normal post the pandemic – particularly, normalization of state surveillance, social distancing etc. This led me to ponder on more scenarios – would the lock down finally bring in more equal division of labor at home, would WFH become more common, would some parents realize the boons of home-schooling and many more.
As much it is a time of distress and uncertainty, the pandemic and the subsequent lock down has brought forth a series of unintended consequences – bird songs, clean air, empty public spaces being reclaimed by animals, high levels of creativity, Houseparty, some have picked up skills in cooking and baking. I’ve learned to make ‘a nice cup of ginger chai’ – garnished with cardamom.
With lots of time in hand and with few things to do or places to get to, some of us may indeed come out of this with a greater appreciation of the little things in life.
I had nascent plans for travel around May this year. Alas, we are quite literally reduced to travelling around our own rooms in the coming months. While there is definite philosophical wisdom in travelling around our rooms, we do have avenues to quench our thirst for travel during the pandemic. Reif Larson gives us a masterclass on How to See the World When You’re Stuck at Home. It’s Google Street View. Reif writes about his recent travel with his son “On my computer screen, we pretended to land at the Charleston airport. I provided the narration. We rented our car, which smelled like Twizzlers and a damp pack of cigarettes. On our way out of the airport, Max spotted this T.S.A. Agent dangerously reading and walking by the side of the road. (I like to think she was reading Albert Camus.)” I’ve done arm chair travel through books and films, but I’m yet to undertake a proper journey through Google Street View.
Some evenings are just too fine that we want to take a stroll. Only we can’t now. But I just discovered (courtesy: Reif) that there are walking vlogs on YouTube. It has proved therapeutic for me.
I figured this was a good time to add to my professional skill set (null set at present). I started learning Python from Dataquest. I’m really glad I stumbled upon Dataquest. I was sold after reading their ‘how to learn‘ article. For someone with minimal background in programming, I’m quite satisfied with the progress I’ve made over the last few days. If you’ve been meaning to take-up Python, I’d strongly suggest Dataquest, their basic courses are free. You can buy me a desert after the lock down.
Of course I’ve been reading. Though much lesser than what I would’ve liked to. I’ve been reading ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin for over two months now, completed only a third of the 700 pages and we’re just getting to the part when Lincoln wins the Republican nomination for Presidential elections in 1860. I’ve also been reading John Green’s ‘Turtles All the Way Down.’ I’ve been watching House of Cards a little too much.
That brings an end to my first post during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was painfully long as I had to cover whole week. The future daily installments shall be shorter.
My relationship with Michelle Obama’s Becoming began much before I actually read her book. On a January night, a decade ago in 2009, when I was in high school, I watched the swearing in of Barack Obama on television along with my parents in the drawing hall of my home, about 8500 miles away from Washington. My knowledge of racial history was limited to blacks being discriminated against and a speech of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet I sensed something special, I felt good about what was happening. What happened in Capitol Hill that night (day in the US) meant something to me. I went to bed that night, inspired but not knowing what about exactly. I did not know then that that night will mean more to me later.
A decade later, my understanding of the US had evolved through books, films, news, and my interest. I had read Barack Obama’s both books and watched numerous interviews and speeches of his. He had become a role model of sorts for me, though at a personal level.
I already had a notion of Michelle from what I had read in Barack’s books. Wrote Obama in his book, The Audacity of Hope:
Most people who meet my wife quickly conclude that she is remarkable. They are right about this—she is smart, funny, and thoroughly charming..Often, after hearing her speak at some function or working with her on a project, people will approach me and say something to the effect of “You know I think the world of you, Barack, but your wife…wow!” I nod, knowing that if I ever had to run against her for public office, she would beat me without much difficulty.
This is the context in which I picked up Michelle’s book. With a curiosity to know more about Michelle, the Obamas, their values, Barack’s mind, among others.
Getting to Know Michelle Robinson
The book is thoughtfully partitioned into three parts – Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More. In the first part, Michelle dissects her growing up years in the second-floor apartment in the South Shore Neighborhood of Chicago, striving at her school, arranging her first kiss, teenage loneliness, her family, listening to jazz, a child’s observation of the world around her, getting into Princeton, conversations with her girlfriends, and questioning herself over a hundred times, ‘Am I good enough?‘
Within the first few pages, I was in Michelle’s Southside apartment and could hear the tones of her Aunt’s piano. More importantly, in both her story and her writing it is easy to sense the authenticity, her attitude, and her ‘straight-forward no-nonsense’ manner of being. She herself admits to being an in-your-face sort of person.
We understand Michelle’s drive to succeed and prove herself she asks for a do-over on a reading exercise in kindergarten. It is no surprise that she got into Princeton and then into Harvard Law School. While we are treated to her days at Princeton, her days at Harvard Law School is condensed to hundred words.
Her narrative about her father, a man with an immense positive outlook who is also affected by multiple sclerosis, is warm and poignant. Her father’s story is a leitmotif that keeps returning throughout the book. It reaches a peak one night when Michelle is with her father at his hospital bed:
“He would not recover. He was going to miss the whole rest of my life. I sat in a chair next to his bed and watched him laboring to breathe. When I put my hand in his, he gave it a comforting squeeze. We looked at each other silently…What was left was only one truth. We were reaching the end.”
Knowing Barack Better
“Barack was serious without being self-serious.”
Michelle’s book furthered my understanding of Obama. While one gets to know about Barack from his books, we may not get a holistic objective picture. When a person is writing about oneself he tends to take certain aspects of himself for granted and does not throw enough light on it. Another’s perspective helps to complete the picture of a person. When that other perspective comes from someone who has been the closest to Barack, that makes it even more insightful.
Michelle characterizes Barack as someone who is too cerebral for most people to put up with, was more at home with the unruliness of the world, was dialed into the day-to-day demands of his life bet at the same time his thoughts roamed a much wider plane like income inequality, feels comfortable when he over-commits himself, and wanted to be effective far more than he wanted to be rich. I’ve often wondered how one could be bookish, thoughtful, phenomenal idealism, write better than most bestselling writers, and yet wanted to be in politics and even succeeded at it. Well, that can only be a person who had the characteristics that Michelle describes.
And to the pride of all the book lovers, looks like Barack is a book guy himself. Writes Michelle, “He’d also sold his idea for a non-fiction book about race and identity to a New York publisher, which for someone who worshiped books as he did felt like an enormous and humbling boon.”
Michelle vs Barack
As we read, it is evident that Barack and Michelle are people with different personalities and formational experiences. Their career trajectory is an easy giveaway. Michelle liked the approval of people, her choice of going to Princeton and then to law school was driven by it. Barack meanwhile was more rooted in his idealism, he works at a financial research firm for a bit to save some money and then takes a gamble as he plunges himself into community organizing before he applied for law school. Barack was the ever-optimistic risk taker.
Barack loved solitude and could lock himself in a cabin for weeks, while Michelle was more social and needed people around her. She traces the divergent personalities to the years growing up. She writes, “Barack could pour his heart out through a pen. He’d been raised on letters..from his mom in Indonesia. I was brought up on Sunday dinners at Southside’s, where you sometimes had to shout to be heard.”
The difference in their psychological make-up is reflected in their attitudes towards marriage and relationships. Michelle writes, “He saw marriage as the loving alignment of two people who could lead parallel lives but without forgoing any independent dreams or ambitions. For me, marriage was more like a full-on merger, a reconfiguring of two lives into one, with the well-being of the family taking precedence over any one agenda or goal.”
Despite their differences, what kept them united and made them adapt to each other was probably the shared values and the aspirations of being good humans, doing meaningful work, raising good kids, and living a worthwhile life.
Having read the books of both Barack and Michelle, I’d confess that for an ordinary soul Michelle is more relatable. While Barack is a great role model, he just seems a tad sorted out for many of us to identify with. He makes unconventional career choices, works grassroots, has an unwavering vision, sustains deep optimism, and knows where he is going – not a common man. Michelle is the one who has the doubts about herself, seeks approval and social validation, she takes safe career options and then remorses her career that didn’t suit who she was. Many of us could identify with her.
On Finding a Meaningful Career
Just as I said in the previous lines, many us would navigate towards safe career options early in our lives, and quite reasonably so. But down the line, after securing some amount of financial stability and confidence in our aspirations, we might want to look for work that is more meaningful to us. This is what Michelle does and describes how she went about it. This is such a demonstrated practical advice that I’m going to quote in full:
“I felt certain that I had something more to offer to the world. It was time to make a move. Still unsure of where I hope to land, I typed up letters of introduction and sent them to people all over the city of Chicago…Over the course of the spring and summer of 1991, I put myself in front of anyone I thought might be able to give me some advice. The point was less to find a new job than to widen my understanding of what was possible and how others had gone about it. I was realizing that the next phase of my journey would not simply unfold on its own, that my fancy academic degrees weren’t automatically lead me to fulfilling work. Finding a career as opposed to a job wouldn’t just come from perusing the contact pages of an alumni directory; it required deeper thought and effort… And so, again and again, I laid out my professional dilemma for the people I met, quizzing them on what they did and who they knew. I asked earnest questions about what kind of work might be available to a lawyer who didn’t, in fact, want to practice law.”
On Relationship Lessons
Michelle honestly reflects on the challenges of her relationship with Barack. There are so many lessons that could be drawn. First, one has to be open about ones needs to the other. Barack, by his own admission, was not much of a phone guy and he preferred letter writing. But it wouldn’t work for Michelle. Writes Michelle, “I wasn’t going to relegate our love to the creeping pace of the postal service. I informed Barack that if our relationship was going to work, he’d better get comfortable with the phone.”
I found her take on fights among couples particularly insightful:
“Like any newish couple, we were learning how to fight…And for better or worse, I tend to yell when I’m angry..Barack, meanwhile, tends to remain cool and rational, his words coming in an eloquent (and therefore irritating) cascade…Over time, we have figured out how to express and overcome our irritations and occasional rage. When we fight now, it’s far less dramatic, often more efficient, and always with our love for each other, no matter how strained, still in sight.”
And do not shy to opt for couples counseling if need be to save the relationship. Even the Obamas have done it. Michelle says that couples counseling actually worked.
“I couldn’t help but feel a little bit lost by comparison. His sense of purpose seemed like an unwitting challenge to my own.”
The best kind of relationship is one which enables each other towards the path of flourishing. It is when one learns from the other and becomes aware of what is missing in oneself. Writes Michelle, “He steered himself with a certainty I found astounding…For me, coexisting with Barack’s strong sense of purpose – sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it – was something to which I had to adjust, not because he flaunted it, exactly, but because it was so alive.”
But becoming aware of what one wants to be is not enough. One needs immense courage to make that leap. Left to one own self, this never happens, and I can personally vouch for it. You need someone who understands you and can reassure you and nudge you.
“Don’t worry, Barack was saying. You can do this. We’ll figure it out.“
She writes, “Barack was a constant and lonely support and probably the push she needed to change careers and do what she really cared about. “His was the lone voice telling me to just go for it, to erase the worries and go toward whatever I thought would make me happy.”
“I was too busy resenting Barack for managing to fit workouts into his schedule, for example, to even begin figuring out how to exercise regularly myself.”
Michelle lays herself open and vulnerable as she confesses on her resentment towards Barack, and how eventually she manages to work herself out of it. She writes, “I began to see that there were ways I could be happier and that they didn’t necessarily need to come from Brack’s quitting politics in order to take some nine-to-six foundation job. It was possible that I was more in charge of my happiness that I was allowing myself to be.”
What stands out is that she shifts perspective, grows out of the frustrations, and puts in new systems to overcome them. She is not grudging it, she is not ignoring it, she takes qualitative steps. It might seem very simple and domestic, but the importance cannot be more emphasized. It could break marriages and families. It happens all the time all around us.
“Barack and I got married on a sunny October Saturday in 1992..”
It was a pleasant discovery for me that the Obamas married eight days before I was to come into this world – in a city in Southern India thousands of miles away from the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side, where they got married.
On Parenting Well
Parenting is one of the most complex tasks in the world. The tales in the book Michelle’s philosophy on raising her girls is a treasure trove of wisdom. Barack had talked about in his book on the importance of fatherhood and him being there for his girls. But Michelle talks more practical stuff that we could all gain from. She writes:
“We had kids, and kids need room to speak and grow…Barack and I would sit at dinner, hearing tales from the Sidwell playground or listening to the details of Malia’s research project on endangered animals, feeling as if these were the most important things in the world. Because they were. They deserved to be.”
I thought it was parenting gold when she talks about the mentoring programs she ran for girls at the White House:
“My wish for them was the same one I had for Sasha and Malia – that in learning to feel comfortable at the White House, they’d go on to feel comfortable and confident in any room, sitting at any table, raising their voices inside any group.”
There are even more lessons to be drawn from Michelle’s parents, especially her mother. She writes, “My parents talked to us like adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.” A few pages later she eulogizes her mother’s parental mindset, “My mother maintained the sort of parental mindset that I now recognize as brilliant and nearly impossible to emulate – a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality.”
On Learning from Women
I hadn’t read many biographies on women. Reading ‘Becoming’ helped me relate to the much more complex of life in the modern world – professional aspirations, motherhood, spouse’s career, household, and sustaining a marriage. We see Michelle trial through the time when she didn’t have Barack to support her at home, being busy as he was in Illinois Legislature or later, in the US Senate. She is candid about her frustrations on Barrack on occasions.
Yet she managed it all. She charted a career that she found meaningful even as she fights guilt being away from her girls, held the household and raised the girls even as Barack was away, gave all the support she could to Barack’s campaign, and managed to sustain their relationship even if she had to pull Barack to couple’s counseling.
I realized that women were doing much more. Their days were packed, multi-tasking was a given, and hardly found any ‘me’ time. I figured probably there was more one could learn from women – on how they managed to hold their lives together despite several pressures and stakeholders.
In all this, she acknowledges the role sisterhood has played in her life:
A habit that has sustained me for life, keeping a close and high-spirited council of girlfriends – safe harbor of female wisdom.
“I knew we’d help one another out and we’d all be okay,” she writes.
Reflecting on Life
Michelle’s outlook and worldview are life-affirming. She describes her growing up years when she sees families with better cars and friends with fancy toys or who bought their clothes at the mall than sewing them – quite a few of us would recognize this from our own experience, and it does influence us as kids. She writes:
“As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you learn that you’re been measuring all wrong.”
A page later, she becomes a philosopher and delivers the divine commandment:
“Life was better, always, when we could measure the warmth.”
There are a hundred interesting details in the book – her faux pas with the British Queen, the daily night briefing books at the White House, the rush of campaigning, and the visits to military hospitals. But the best thing about a book of this kind – one where the author traces the journey of her life and connects her dots – is that it helps the reader in tracing their own journey, and sometimes throws up an insight or two about our own selves.
The book plays the role of a mentor. I can’t think of a book (that I’ve read) that fits this mentor role than Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Among the many reasons to read books, I particularly appreciate those books that become mentors to ourselves, the people in the book become voices in my head and companions that’ll be there and provide wisdom as I go through life. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is one such book. Reading the book felt like having a long conversation deep into the night with a close friend.
If you’re in your teens read it to have a good model to follow, if you’re lost in your twenties read it to find your own ‘becoming’, if you’re in your thirties, read it to tackle your mid-life crisis and relationship strains, if you’re over forty-five with a satisfied life, gift this book to your children or the young people around you.