Teaching an old dog new tricks

It has been a good ten months since I stopped taking my sleeping pills. I have used sleeping pills to fall asleep on and off for a good 10 years – almost constantly really, except for the time I was pregnant with my son. I have tried to get off them several times over the last five years, but I was never successful. Now that it is almost a year since I stopped, I cautiously hope that I finally kicked the habit.

It has not been an easy journey. In the past, my only motivation to quit the sleeping pill was a vague belief of “chronic use of sleeping pills is bad for you.” But this time, I knew for sure that the pill was messing with my memory. My memory skills are very important to me. It is one of my strengths and something that I am proud of. The threat of losing my memory and my mind was a strong motivator in this quest to conquer sleep. Sometime ago, my doctor wrote me a prescription for a different sleeping pill assuring me that it was safe. I was hesitant about it and so she just shrugged and told me that I could use it if I want. I got the prescription filled but I have not used it at all. Every time I am tempted, I recall the feeling of intense embarrassment that I felt every time I couldn’t remember what happened the night before.

I have now come to see my chronic insomnia to be a disorder akin to alcoholism. I don’t think I will every be rid of it, but I can take steps to control it. I believe that using a sleeping pill even for one night will lure me back into the addiction. So, how do I control this beast that I have to live with? The answer lies in learning a few new tricks and following them diligently. Over the summer, I read a whole bunch of books on insomnia – from the helpful to the ridiculous. The first solution that is commonly recommended is the disciplined practice of sleep hygiene. Now, this is something that I have read so many times on various websites that I could probably recite it all in my sleep.

  1. Avoid or limit naps.
  2. Avoid stimulants like caffeine, especially after 3 PM.
  3. Do not eat too close to bedtime.
  4. Exercise regularly.
  5. Stop using screens with blue light for several hours before bedtime.
  6. Expose yourself to more natural light in the morning.
  7. Establish a regular sleep routine or ritual.
  8. Associate your bed with sleep – no watching tv or reading in bed.
  9. Ensure that the bed environment is ideal, not too hot or loud or bright.
  10. Go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day, including the weekends.

I have always shrugged off these suggestions because I believed that I was either already following most of them, or that some of them were impossible to follow. But after my research all summer, I wanted to give it a real try. Some things I was already doing – like no caffeine after 3pm, no screens for several hours before bedtime, somewhat regular exercise, morning sunlight exposure (as much as that is possible in the state of Washington!), and no tv in bed. I have always been against tv in bed. We have never had a tv in our bedroom. But I would always watch tv for an hour or so in the family room before bed,  (when kids are in bed and peace and quiet prevail) especially the shows that are not kid-friendly.

The first thing I did was start sleeping in a quieter room (aka no snoring from hubby). Then, I started turning down the lights at least two hours before bedtime. I stopped eating anything except for a small snack (to keep my blood sugars stable at night). Next, I started limiting or avoiding naps as much as possible. This was a bit of a challenge because I had to nap whenever I had a bad night’s sleep. I then tackled establishing a regular sleep routine. For this, I tried several things like a warm shower before bed, milk, or chamomile tea before bed and such. Nothing really caught on, so instead I settled for brushing my teeth, filling my water bottle, setting my phone to charge, and tucking the kids in bed. One change that made a huge difference was setting my phone on airplane mode during the night time. No more waking up because of notifications for every little thing! As my Fitbit vibrates for a silent alarm in the morning, I also made sure that I put the phone far away from the bed.

There were two suggestions on the list that were very hard for me. The biggest of them was sleeping and waking up at around the same time every day. As a night owl, this would be easier if I could go to sleep at 2 AM every night and wake up at 10 AM everyday. Alas, that is not possible in our world! So, I sacrificed the tv time that I used to enjoy after the kids went to bed and started going to bed pretty soon after the kids were asleep. This helped me establish a somewhat regular bedtime because I strictly enforce a regular bedtime on my children. Although it was difficult, I even managed to reduce the gap in bedtime on the weekends, to something more reasonable than four hours. But, even with all this, there was one more piece to the puzzle.

I resisted this last change the most because I never believed that not reading in bed would really make a difference . Reading in bed was my bedtime routine for years. In fact, that was how I realized that my sleeping pills were messing with my memory. I would have to go back and read the same section every night. My Kindle has a built-in light so I can read at night without disturbing others. Also, Kindles do not emit the blue night found in backlit screens, like phones and tablets. So, I believed reading in bed was okay and never made any effort to change that habit. However, over the past month or so, I have come to recognize my sleep window (that time just before falling asleep when your mind quiets and readies itself for sleep). I only learned to recognize this because of my regular bedtime. My sleep window is so small, such a light dip, that I would overcome it with the slightest stimulus (even reading). I never even realized that I had a sleep window before! But now that I knew I had one, I started waiting for it when I got into bed and give it a chance to develop before picking up my kindle to read. As weeks went by, I found myself avoiding the ritual of reading in bed and suddenly it all made sense. It was true – even reading in bed is disruptive to sleep (at least for someone like me). I really need to reserve my bed only for sleep. It just means that I will have to carve out some other time for reading. But, because reading is important to me so I am sure I will work that out.

Nowadays, I am falling asleep much faster than ever before. I picked out other small bits of advice, from books and websites, that have also helped. I keep a pad and pen near my bed to write down things that I want to remember the next day. That way I can let go of it in my mind. I surround my bed with everything I need. A full bottle of water, the pad and the pen, some headache meds and/or pain balm etc, all within a hand’s reach. To make my sleep “den” even more conducive to sleep, I set my thermostat a little lower than optimum. Did you know that one of the processes involved in falling asleep is a fall in your core body temperature? That’s why a warm shower before bed or a colder bedroom works. It makes your body temperature drop faster.

So, with all these lifestyle changes, I have made my insomnia bearable. I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and have trouble falling asleep again, but I am miles away from how bad it used to be. I still go to bed each day having no idea if I am going to get a good night’s sleep or not, but I am more hopeful. As each strategy brought me closer to my goal, I became more motivated to add more lifestyle changes to see if they will help. The downside of this type of management is the inherent fragility of it. Deviating from my sleep routine even for one day ripples into bad sleep for the next few days.

It helps to have a family that supports you. My family members, even my children,  know to never wake me up unless it is an emergency. My mother instilled in me a respect for sleep during my childhood. If I fell asleep before dinner (when I was a kid), she would rather let me sleep than wake me up to make sure I ate. She always said that missing that sleep would be more disruptive to my body than missing dinner. This is a unique attitude in an Indian mother (so many of them are obsessed with feeding their kids)! This family habit of “never wake a person who is sleeping” has even cost me a friendship. Just after college graduation, one of my best friend’s father arrived at my house to invite us all to his daughter’s wedding. I was out and my mother was napping and my 11-year-old brother refused to wake my mother and told him to come back some other time (as he was instructed to do with most people). He did not realize that it was an incredibly rude thing to do in this situation. Even after I apologized profusely on this behalf, my friend and her family took serious offense. Although I went to her wedding, she never spoke to me after that. Even after this incident, I stand by my “don’t wake up someone without a good reason” policy. I have heard it said in the Hindu culture that your soul communes with God when you are asleep. I believe that is the reason many of us wake up with a clearer head and more stable emotions after a good night’s sleep. Whenever a baby smiles in its sleep (and many babies do), my mother always said that the baby is smiling because God is playing with the child in his sleep!

Even after this incident, I stand by my “don’t wake up someone without a good reason” policy. I have heard it said, in the Hindu culture, that your soul communes with God when you are asleep. I believe that is the reason many of us wake up with a clearer head and more stable emotions after a good night’s sleep. My mother always says that whenever a baby smiles in its sleep (a lot of babies do), it is because God is playing with the child during sleep! I doubt most people think or write about sleep this much. But, for me, sleep is sacred. This morning, I tiptoed past the bird cage, because one of the birds was fast asleep! As I did that, it occurred to me that is an indication of how much I respect sleep. Its what prompted me to write this post.

So, please don’t wake a sleeping person unless you have a good reason. Here’s wishing everyone peaceful sleep.

-AB

 

The to-do list: a small piece of paper that weighs a ton

It has been a long break since my last post. I have fallen victim to the fast-paced American lifestyle. Of the three countries that I have lived in during my lifetime (India, Australia, and USA), America has the fastest pace. It is one of the things I don’t like about living here. When I am here, twenty-four hours is never enough in a day. There is always something to be done. The laundry, the dishes, cleaning, outside errands to the grocery store, the post office, doctor’s/dentist/vet appointments, homework, cooking and it goes on and on. My life is a never ending list of things to do. Honestly, I don’t know how mothers that work outside the home do it. I can barely hold it all together while working from home.

I am always multitasking, even though I know that multitasking doesn’t really get help in getting anything accomplished faster. A couple of days ago, when I sat down to help the kids with their homework, I quickly looked around to see what else I can do while helping them. It made me realize what a chronic multitasker I have become. I never watch TV just to watch TV. If I am not folding laundry or chopping vegetables while I am watching TV, I feel like I am wasting time. Sometimes I combine watching TV with my meditative coloring, as if that will help me wind down more in half the time! Lately I have been pulling out some kind of work to do while waiting at places (doctor’s offices and such) instead of my kindle to just read. In fact, I haven’t read a book since the start of the year and that made me realize that I really need to do something to slow down the hectic pace of my life.

It has been six months since I moved to the US and things have finally settled down enough for me to bring some order into my life with a proper routine. So I sat down yesterday to break down my day-to-day work into easier chunks. After assigning the first half of the day to writing work and the second half to household chores, I found that the hardest thing for me to schedule was “me” time. I need 90 minutes of me time everyday for my physical and mental health: 40 minutes for exercise, 20 minutes for meditation and 30 minutes for winding down. I wish I could set aside another 30 minutes everyday to read but unfortunately, I have to alternate reading, watching TV, and art during my winding down time.

Even as I write this, I feel the weight of the dozen other things that I have to do today. But, I have decided to challenge myself by trying to write 500 words everyday and I shall start that today, here.

Sample to-do list:

  1. Exercise
  2. Meditation
  3. Writing
  4. Cooking
  5. Studying & reading with the kids
  6. Household chores
  7. Outside errands
  8. Winding down

This is the bare-bones list. It gets heavier but never really lighter unless I don’t have outside errands. But at the end of the day there is no greater feeling of accomplishment than a fully crossed out to-do list!

-AB

 

 

 

The pissing evil

Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with insulin resistance. Two weeks ago, I was diagnosed with diabetes.

The word “diabetes” has always struck terror in my heart. When I was growing up, my mother would always talk about how her grandfather died of it. To her, it was always a big demon. When I was 20, my mother was diagnosed with it. She was 42. Although, she always thought of it as a horrible disease, she didn’t really foresee that she would get it. Both her parents didn’t have it. For her it was a total shock, it just came out of the blue and knocked her off her feet. It took her more than a year to come to terms with the diagnosis. Witnessing her struggle with the diagnosis, it became this huge enemy in my mind. Since then I started to read and learn everything about the disease- knowledge is power after all.

Even with good control, my mother became insulin-dependent after several years. Ten years ago, at the age of 60, my dad became a diabetic. He took his diagnosis in stride, with his never die attitude. Still, as years marched on, the disease wore down his body as well as his optimism and sometimes overpowered him. He is not insulin-dependent, although he had to take insulin for a couple of months when some medication had the side effect of high blood sugar. Currently, both my parents have their blood sugars under control and continue to battle this demon.

When I was pregnant with my first child, the doctors worried that I would get gestational diabetes because I was already insulin resistant. I followed a very strict diet and checked my sugars seven times a day. I managed to deliver my daughter without succumbing to gestational diabetes.  When I became pregnant with my son, I went on a similar diet. In the last trimester, even with the strict diet, I saw the sugars climb up. It got to a point where I just couldn’t eat any differently to get it under control. I had to take insulin injections during the last three weeks of my pregnancy. Research shows that those who get gestational diabetes almost always develop type II diabetes within five years of the pregnancy. I was determined that I would not become part of that statistic. I lasted six and a half years.

The trouble with such research statistics is that numbers are black and white, while biology isn’t. Those numbers are not hard facts; they are just estimates. Like the estimate that if both your parents are diabetic, you have a one in two chance of becoming one yourself. But when they say a one in two chance, it isn’t like a flip of a coin. It is not mean that if my parents had eight kids, four of them will become diabetic. In reality all eight kids probably get various amounts of susceptibility, some more than others. With the decks stacked against me genetically, I could only exercise control over my lifestyle to delay the inevitable onset.

Every other Indian is diabetic these days. Chennai is the diabetic capital of the world. With all this background, there must have been some part of me that KNEW that I too will be a diabetic some day. I just hoped it will be after 60 like my dad. It is incredibly upsetting to me that even with monitoring my health for so many years, the demon caught up to be even before he caught my mother. I never expected to be diagnosed at 39. My mother’s parents were both diagnosed last year. My grandmother is 78 and my grandfather was 84. I am the youngest in my family to be diagnosed with this disease.

Coming to terms with a diagnosis that changes your lifestyle completely is very much like grief. I grieve for the life I lived before when I didn’t have to worry overly about what I ate and when. That life is now gone. The five stages of grief are denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. My mother went through a lot of denial because she was had no inkling of her health status. I thought that I didn’t waste much time in denial, but it must have been there because I did not want to admit to anyone that I was now diabetic. I was overwhelmed with isolation and depression. It didn’t help that I already felt isolated because of my move to the US. But mostly I felt guilty. So much guilt that I had let this happen. So much shame and anger, mostly directed inward. Then I wallowed in self-pity. One night, I was overwhelmed with fear; fear of eating. I felt panicky that no matter what I ate, I would not be able to control this. I wanted to release my emotions by writing a post about it, but I was not ready then. I did not want anyone to know my failure to prevent this. At this stage, I started reading more about emotional responses to the diagnosis. Website after website told me to let go of the guilt and the fear. I prayed for help to do just that.

Yesterday, I forgot to put my protein bar in my purse on my way out. When I started feeling hypoglycemic and searched for the bar, it wasn’t there. I know the dangers of hypoglycemia. Besides, the danger, it leaves me tired, makes me binge eat and sometimes leaves behind a headache. Thankfully, I had emergency glucose tablets. I have never had those before but they did an incredible job of rescuing me. I then bought a box of peanuts and couldn’t stop myself from eating three servings instead of one. Later, when I was waiting to pick up my kids at the bus stop, I admitted to a new friend that I am a diabetic. I didn’t plan on it. It just happened. I guess I was starting to come to terms with it.

Today, something happened that pushed me over the line into acceptance. I found out that my daughter’s new best friend, a fellow fifth-grader, is a type I diabetic. It shocked me when the child chose a single slice of brown bread as an after-school snack because “it was the only thing in the house that was below 5 carbs.” Now I feel ashamed again, but this time for all the drama, the self-pity and the depression. How incredibly blessed I am that I got to live till 39 years without this disease! That child is only ten.

I know that this epiphany does not mean that the struggle is over or that I will always be fine with it. I have seen how my parents still have days when they just want to surrender to it all. I know I will have my down days. But for now, I have made my peace with it. And I write this to remind me on those black days to count my blessings and be grateful.

By the way if you are wondering about the title of this post, it refers to the etymology of the word “diabetes”. It is an old common name for diabetes, derived from the symptom of excessive urination.

-AB

Life = Change

I haven’t blogged in about six weeks. In those six weeks, I relocated from India to northwest USA.

I unboxed more than a dozen boxes and nine suitcases of items and put them away. During this process I tidied up and re-tidied up every room in my apartment at least 3 times, maybe more. I built up an entire kitchen from a couple of pans and plates to a fully stocked one with a toaster, a rice cooker, a mixer, an electric kettle, several pots and pans, cutlery, Tupperware, a cutting board, and knives. I bought a dozen jars and filled them with dhals, rice, nuts, and spices and turned it into a workable Indian kitchen. Also, I bought several pieces of furniture on craigslist and at Ikea and furnished our apartment.

I made appointments with doctors and got my children up-to-date on their vaccinations. I had them enrolled in school. I shopped for all their school supplies. I searched and found the perfect owl backpack that my daughter wanted and convinced my son to go with a dinosaur backpack instead of a puppy one that wasn’t available. I bought them warmer clothes, socks and shoes. I went through aisles of clothing to find a jacket for my daughter that wasn’t pink. Along with my husband, we got the children on a schedule of chores and laid down rules about screen-free Mondays and Wednesdays. We took the kids to the playground, the pool, and the library. As promised, we bought a hand-tamed parakeet for my daughter and a puppy for my son.

About two weeks after my move, I organized and conducted a Seemantham (religious ceremony akin to a baby shower) for my sister-in-law and my brother. It was a pain to shop for, even though my mother had bought most of the items and packed them for me. I cooked about six dishes for it and still have leftovers from it! I once again experienced the pain of separation as my brother and his wife left for the east coast.

I had my immigration physical and spent an hour with my doctor discussing my health. He mentioned that I seemed to have a lot on my plate. No kidding! I had five vials of blood drawn for various tests. I had a chest x-ray taken to prove that I don’t have tuberculosis.

I reacquainted myself with driving on the right side of the road. I got into the habit of checking the weather forecast before choosing what to wear for the day. I started wearing socks all the time while at home. I am re-training myself to shop for a whole week of groceries without forgetting something, to go to the correct side of the car, and to walk on the right side of corridors and pavements. It will take me more time to guess the time of the evening without a watch (the sun sets around 6 pm in India and only at 9 pm here).

I did all this under a cloud of jet lag, insomnia, and depression. The jet lag was gone within a week. The depression just got worse. Sometimes I miss India so much that it feels like a physical ache in my heart. I hate shopping and the overdose of shopping has not helped with my mood. I am now slowly working my way out of that depression back to my normal self by telling myself that I will accept life as Lord Krishna gives it to me.

My home office is finally set up. I have a large, sturdy desk in front of a window, with a nice view of the street outside and a comfortable chair. Now, I can get back to writing.

-AB

Mid-Life Calm

mlc

I watched Jyothika’s “36 Vaiyathinilae” yesterday. It wasn’t a great movie by any standards and in fact I felt it dragged quite a bit. However, there were somethings in the movie that struck a chord with me. I am sure that most women in their late thirties will find something in it to relate to.

It is a movie about a 36-year-old woman facing a mid-life crisis. It is about the journey she goes on to rediscover herself and come out winning, along with some preachy advice about growing your own organic produce. There were several things in the movie that irritated me from the spoiled brat of a daughter to the statement that “all food grown in Ireland is organic” *eye roll*. But it did do a great job capturing the sense of hopelessness and regret that comes with a mid-life crisis. And for me it hit the nail on the head when it all began with the protagonist turning 36.

I never believed in the concept of a mid-life crisis until I experienced one myself. For me too, it began around my 36th birthday. Maybe “crisis” is too strong a word. It was more like mid-life stress and I noticed that it didn’t just happen to me. I observed that other women I know also went through this mid-life coming-of-age stage in their lives.

I think its because most people never visualize themselves beyond the age 35. When we are young we plan our lives: school, college, graduate school, career, marriage, children. And that’s where it stops. We don’t really make plans beyond that. We go through each of these stages, adapting to each role: student, employee, girlfriend, fiance, wife, mother etc.,. At around age 35, most have us have gone through these stages and suddenly stop and wonder “what next?” By the time we hit mid-to-late thirties, most of us have children who are not as dependent on us anymore as they were when they were infants and toddlers. For some who chose the path not to get married or have kids, they might suddenly realize that they have’t found “the one” or they might start to hear their biological clock ticking. When we don’t know what to do next, we invariably turn to the past and remember lives we planned for ourselves. We realize that life didn’t really go according to plan and we are not where we thought we’d be financially, or career-wise or family-wise or whatever.

Regret is central theme at this time. No one plans for regret. Everyone wants to live their lives without regret. But I think regret is as inevitable as death. Humans will always wonder what would have happened if they they had chosen a different path when they were at crossroads in their youth. The tendency to think that the grass is greener on the other side is very real. Stay-at-home moms wonder if they chose right, as do working moms. Sometimes I can visualize my past as a tree branching off into different directions at important points in my life and wonder what it would have looked like if the branches had grown in other directions.

What if I had never gone to Australia? What if I had gone to graduate school in India? What if I had never set foot in the US? What if I had not transferred from Mississippi State University to Ohio State University? What if I had ended up having an arranged marriage? These are questions I asked myself. Sometimes I wonder, what if I had gone to art school instead? or journalism? or psychology? As I worked through these what ifs, I couldn’t help having a few regrets here and there. Its part of being human.

The other thing that hits me in my late thirties is the very real fear that my parents are getting old. I now have to condition myself to become their guardians and care for them like they cared for me. This a role that I didn’t really anticipate until it hits me in the face. It is a difficult role to grow into. I now worry about my parents like I do about my children. I realize now that Death is a reality, not just as some far-off thing that is doesn’t concern me.

One of the big things that I went through in my mid-life crisis was wondering if I had failed to pass on my culture to my children. I am not sure how universal this turmoil is. I know that my interracial marriage and US residency contributed to these feelings. I wanted to take my children to my childhood haunts, have them experience some of the same things I experienced and loved as a child. I wanted them to know more about Indian culture, my language, my heritage and traditions, my religion and beliefs.

A lot of it is just coming to terms with aging. I realized that no one ever calls me “akka” anymore, only “auntie”. Its hard enough when the movie heroines were younger than me but if feels so unfair that even the heroes are younger than me now! My body feels like it is falling apart and I have become aware of achy joints and lower energy. Late nights are not interesting anymore, for I just want to be in bed early enough so I can get a good night’s sleep. All the things my parents told me make sense now. My children are starting to say the same things I told my parents.

Like all the other turning points, the mid-life crisis itself can go any of several ways. I have seen it destroy marriages, plunge people into despair and depression. For me though, it lead to a lot of introspection. I found an anchor in my faith, like many people do. I re-evaluated my beliefs, my biases and my goals. I learned to stop fighting life and to go with the flow instead. I sorted out what was really important to me in my life. Most of all, I learned to forgive myself.

I finally reached a state of mid-life calm. I believe that everything in life happens for a purpose, or at least that you can find a purpose for everything that happens. The roads I took brought me to where I am. And where I am is a very blessed state. Some decisions still nag me… If I had not transferred to Ohio State University, I would have maybe earned my PhD. But then,  I wouldn’t have met my husband. I am glad I took that transfer, and even though I took it for all the wrong reasons, something wonderful came out of it. What I regret is the reasons for which I made that decision, not the decision itself. It has made me realize good can come out of wrong. Maybe when it comes right down to it, its all just about seeing what you want to see; what you choose to see.

Now that I am almost ready to walk up the 40s, I feel relaxed. I feel wiser. I have gone through some tough times and have come out just fine. I am blessed and I am grateful. I have my faith to fall back on. I have my family to help me out. I know that calm doesn’t last forever, but this time I know where I can turn to when I need a calm moment. I also know when I need to turn to calm. I know there is still a lot of life to live, a lot of challenges that will come. There will be ups and and there will be downs, but a lot less regrets. For this time, I choose not to regret.

-AB

That’s a job!

A long time I was cleaning out some of old junk and came across some of my husband’s notebooks from college. Now, these are always interesting. His notes are filled with about 25% notes, 70% drawings and ideas for video games featuring elaborate robots, aliens, and fantasy figures, and 5% random thoughts that he was thinking of when he was not paying attention to the lecture. I love to browse through them. Every time I do, I ask my husband to do something more with those game ideas, maybe build a game or write a novel based on it. I generally ignore the boring notes about library science. What I really love are those random thoughts. There is one that is extra-special to me. He had written:

“Food critic – That’s a job”

I asked him for an explanation. He told me that he thought that being a food critic would be an awesome job. You go to restaurants, get special treatment, eat amazing food, and then critique it. It would especially ideal for my husband who so adventurous in his food. Since then, this became a private joke between us. Whenever, we came across some interesting work, we would look at each other, grin and say ‘That’s a job!”.

A few days ago, I realized that I love writing and being a writer “that’s a job”. I wondered why I hadn’t become a writer right out of college and even why I didn’t take college classes to become a writer. I tried to remember my earliest ambitions and with some shock I realized that the first time I really had an ambition was when I was in 6th grade and I had wanted to be *gasp* a ‘writer’!

I moved to a new school in 6th grade and I had a wonderful English teacher who made me realize my love for the language. She took the time to sit with me and corrected some of my repetitive mistakes – I didn’t know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’. I spelled ‘John’ as ‘Jhon’. This memory suddenly came back to me, I had written a story about as protagonist named ‘Jhon’ and she had read it. She sat with me, pointed out my strengths and weaknesses and encouraged me to write. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, this English teacher moved to another school the next year. By the time I got another great English teacher in 9th grade, Indian culture had effectively brainwashed me that you cannot get anywhere in life unless you have a career in science.

In 7th grade, we had a new biology teacher, who helped me discover my love for biology and I forgot all about wanting to be a writer. I still loved my English classes in high school but I had fully embraced science by then. I did great with science in college and in graduate school I combined my love of food/nutrition with biology and became a food microbiologist.

You make plans and then life happens. I wanted to join the food industry and climb up the corporate ladder (now I realize how I would have hated that: you do kind of get to know yourself better in your 30s). Then about 5 years ago, I stumbled back into writing. I worked part-time as a freelance writer picking up writing jobs here and there on the internet. Even when I came back to India, 3 years ago, I initially worked in a food research company albeit in as a public relations officer. I had 2 profiles on naukri.com – one for AB the scientist and one for AB the writer and somehow despite having less experience ,the writer one always got more hits (maybe the profile showcased my writing skills?). So the science was not meant to be.

I got my current job when the HR manager at work called me after seeing my naukri profile. I was out on a jog and wasn’t very interested. I came home and saw his email and decided the place was too far away. A couple of days later, I mentioned it to my mother who pointed out that it wasn’t really that far. So i decided to just go check it out. I went there at 10 am and ended up staying till 7 pm taking their tests one after another and having my final interview and getting the job.

The best thing about my current job was that it made me rediscover my love of writing. It is true that we don’t to much ‘creative writing’ at my job but it just felt so good to be back among words! It made me remember how my original ambition had been to be a writer. It felt great to be surrounded by others who shared an equal love for writing and reading. Writing does the same thing for me that my art does. It releases stress in a creative endeavor while actively engaging my intellect. Art does that for me when my brain is tired and I don’t want to think, but just want to create. Maybe I am more of an artist than a scientist after all. I always used to think I am not ‘untidy’ enough to be a true artist. I detest clutter and find comfort in logic and patterns and I used to think that made me more a scientist than an artist.

I think I really have found my calling with writing and will never be far away from writing again. Maybe some day I will be able to make money being some kind of science writer. Now ‘that would be a job’!

-AB

What’s in a name?

Parents tell you lots of things and try to pass on all kind of advice. Not all of it sticks though. Sometimes, somethings make an impression. One such piece of advice that my dad gave me that made an big impression was this:

“Always ask people their names and refer to them by their name. No matter who they are, what they do, try to remember their names. Especially the names of the people who serve you.”

This little piece of advice really stuck with me and it has now become an unconscious part of me. I make it a point to ask people their names and try to remember it and refer to them by their name. In a country like India, with so many people, this really makes a difference. I know the names of several drivers who have driven me around, the kid who brings tea to my dad’s office, the ladies who wash dishes and clean bathrooms at my work, and the man who sells fruit at the end of my street. Whenever, I meet them I greet them with their names, stop for a minute or two and ask them what’s going on. In return, I get surprise, delight, friendship, concern, and love.

Most of these people get treated like they are part of the scenery all the time and not as the unique individuals that they are. When you make an effort to remember them, they make an effort to get to know you as well. Sometimes you learn hear amazing stories, learn new things, and get to know some great people. For instance:

-My driver supports his wife, their new baby, his mother, his sister who was abandoned by her husband and her kids. His father and brother drank themselves to death, so he never touches alcohol.

-The kid who brings tea to my dad’s office – actually its 2 kids, they are brothers and they are from way north, near Nepal. They work here and send savings back to their family. They visit them once a year, mostly around Raksha Bandhan, because they miss their sister so much. They have only been here a couple of years but can speak Tamil quite fluently.

-One of the ladies who washes dishes and cleans the bathroom, she is covered with burns all the way from her neck down. One day I noticed the burns on her hand and asked her about it. She said that she set herself on fire when she was a young bride because her mother-in-law scolded her about something. She says she doesn’t even remember what she was so mad about. A couple of days ago, she noticed I was limping and stopped to ask me about it.

-The old guy who sells fruit down the street, he had been semi-retired and then money got tight and he started working full time again.

These are little stories I gleaned from them over many encounters. Some of their stories take my breath away. They teach me about human resilience. Its amazing to glimpse into the life and personality of someone you pass by every day. I believe that these experiences make my life richer.

I now remember to pass on this valuable piece of advice to my children. hopefully, they too will be richer for it.

So next time you see someone you pass by every day, stop for a moment and ask their name.

-AB