December 28, 2010

{Did I Let Raka Off Too Easy?}

This morning, Raka called me before she left her mother’s place.  Her tone was not the same old happy bubbly self.  I could sense something was not right. She confirmed it by saying, “Dad something happened, and you will not like it!”

My first reaction was, “Are you alright?”

She told me, “Yes, but as I was backing my car out, I did not realize that mom left the trash can in the garage so close to my car.  I did not see the trash can as I was backing out of the garage and I bumped my mirror into it. The mirror came off but I am sure it can be glued back on.” As I listened, she went on, “Mom should not have been keeping the trash can so close to the car!” 

I realized that the attention was switching to Raka’s mom. She had put the trash can there even before Raka had parked the car, so really Raka should have taken complete ownership for the error instead of blaming her mom.

These conversations are always better in person than over the phone, so I asked Raka to drive over to my place. I was outside, waiting for her when the red Nissan Sentra came over with the passenger side mirror hanging precariously from the side. Raka was very apologetic.  She kept telling me that the damage was minor and it could be glued back on.

I was not sure. Whether it could be glued back on or not, this could have been avoided. It was a clear case of a teenager rushing out of a garage and the consequences could have been way more serious.  I expressed all that to Raka and then sent her off to drive to school.  I told her we would talk about solutions after school.
As she left, I kept thinking.  It was time for “second chance Arjun” to take over.  I realized accidents happen, sometimes because we are careless and sometimes because they just happen.  Of course Raka could have been more careful and should be in the future, but instead of the consequence defining the event, I wanted to look at what lessons Raka should take from this. The real lesson was definitely not in the cost of fixing the mirror.

So I decided to drive to Raka’s school armed with super glue and masking tape.  Once I got there I assessed the damage again and realized it was worth trying to glue it, as if that failed then we would have to replace the whole piece. I got to work in the school parking lot. After I glued it back on, I used all the masking tape I had to make sure it stayed in place. Then I wrote some instructions for Raka on a note and left it on the car then came back home.

Raka and I continued our texting on the subject throughout the day without me mentioning my repairs. Raka soon announced that she had talked to her friend and her dad would be able to fix it.  I told Raka that it is that time of the year when miracles are in the air and that she should go and check the car out.  She went and came back completely excited.  She could not believe that the car was fixed!  At least for now, until the mirror falls off again.

When Raka got back from school we talked about the lessons and consequences. We talked about how she should take ownership instead of blaming her mom for keeping the trash can in the wrong place.  She also was lazy the night before when she drove in, as she should have moved the trash can at that time instead of trying to maneuver the car in.  Finally, she has to be more careful while backing out of the garage as it was very clear that the impact could have been far more serious.

Raka listened.  I realized that it was an easier discussion now that the car was miraculously fixed. The conversation was still assertive and directed, but in this case we were actually listening to each other. Of course it did not hurt that she was hungrily attacking the freshly made mac ’n cheese, and then caramel ice cream as she listened to me.

I love you Raka and you should take this as a warning sign and drive extra cautiously!

December 22, 2010

{A Timely Reminder of the Spirit of Christmas}

It is that time of the year. The Christmas spirit is in the air. Of course the Christmas spirit is all about peace, love, and joy to all. But in my mind true Christmas spirit comes from the act of giving, giving without thinking, and having no clue what impact the giving might make in the lives of others.

This holiday season, I want to celebrate one such giver, a friend of mine, Julie Ann Debenham. Fortunately Julie may not get the Christmas-ONLY-spirit, as her acts of giving continue year round.

A week or two back I received a message from a classmate of mine from Brigham Young University, it was Julie. As we exchanged messages, I learned that she was visiting Colorado Springs and we could meet for breakfast or lunch that week. I was very excited to see Julie again.

Let me first take on a flashback so you know the kind of person Julie is:
A lot of my BYU classmates and their families were kind to me during my early days in the country, but Julie always stood out in my mind. This tall blonde classmate of mine first introduced herself to me during our first week of MBA classes as, “I am Julie from Alaska, and you are the smartest kid in the class.”  Of course, I liked her immediately; as any new student is a sucker for compliment. But I soon realized that inside Julie there is a soul that is genuinely caring and spontaneous. She always observed me and then acted instantly without hesitation.

The first instance of this was when she realized that I lived ten blocks from campus in the Cinnamon Tree apartments. It was a long walk to school and as fall was slowly turning towards winter, the walk was getting longer. I did not know when Julie saw me walking, but one day after class she walked me to her white Toyota Supra, opened the trunk, and took out her mountain bike. “Arjun” she said, “You can borrow this bike till I need it.”

Wow, life all of a sudden became so easy.  What took 15 minutes to get to class, now turned into 4 minutes.

Another time, I was walking back to my apartment carrying plastic bags full of groceries. As winter was in the air, the heavy plastic bags started to bite into my fingers. From time to time, I would stop and rest the bags on the pavement and warm my hands before continuing my walk back. During one such instance, Julie drove by. She waved at me, and ,made a quick u-turn, and came back towards me. She pulled over and with a smile asked me to get in the car. She dropped me off at my apartment. After that it became a ritual for her to pick me up and take me to the grocery store, every week.

Then came my first thanksgiving in the country. I had no clue what the significance of the holiday was. I was planning on using the holiday as a much needed break before the finals. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Julie told me to pack and get ready for the weekend. I was startled. “Where am I going?” 

By the time I asked I knew Julie well enough to realize that asking would not get me an answer. But this time she smiled and said, “I am taking you home.” 

I did not know what to think. I was not very familiar with social norms in the country, nor was I dating this girl. But then I did not have any other options for the weekend.

On Wednesday after class she picked me up and we drove towards Salt Lake City. As we drove, she told me that we were going to her parent’s home in Bountiful. I was excited. As we got close to her home, I was startled by the enormous sizes of the homes. I was staring at each of the homes, when we Julie pulled into the driveway of her parent’s home.

I was expecting an awkward moment when I met Julie’s family. Today if Raka were to surprise me by bringing a boy home with her over Thanksgiving, I would immediately focus on getting his finger prints and running a background check on the boy. But Julie’s family was kind and generous and welcomed me with open arms. It was a great weekend of amazing cooking and fun. When I think back, my fondest memories of the weekend are the moments I shared with Julie’s grandma, as she reminded me of my Maiji.


I was thinking of all the past moments of Julie’s kindness as she walked into the restaurant. We were meeting after nearly 18 years. She had not changed. The same smile, the same big hug, and the same way she always pronounced my name.

We sat down started catching up. I shared with her some of these memories and how she was kind and helpful during my stay in Provo. She smiled and said, “I helped you? Hmmm,” and smiled.

Then she shared with me what she had been doing over the past few years. She talked about how she spends as much time as possible helping others, whether it is an individual in her church or traveling around the world to assist the Red Cross on their next project. She had just come back from one such trip in Azerbaijan. It was amazing to see that she had not changed all.  I realized that if I was walking with bunch of plastic bags full of groceries she would still pull over and say, “Jump in Arjun, let me drop you off at home.” The only thing that had changed was her car, now it was an xTerra, perhaps she anticipated that my grocery needs have increased.

As she shared her thoughts something she said made me pause and stare at her. “Arjun, I want to help others, I want to make the world better in any way I can.” As I listened to her, my memory went back to Raka’s statement as we were driving from Boston to New Haven, when she had told me the same thing.

Soon lunch was over and after a hug, she was off on her long drive to Salt Lake City.  As I started driving back home, I remember that Maiji used to tell me that there are no accidents in life. Everything has a purpose and the challenge is to find the purpose.

Julie’s reconnecting with me must have a purpose. In the holiday season this was a reminder to me of the true Christmas spirit. And the spirit of giving is a yearlong thing and not restricted to a one time act of goodness.

As Raka and I try to get ready for Christmas this year, I am simply thrilled to meet my friend and in the process relive her goodness. Goodness from people like Julie not only changes other’s lives but also inspires others to goodness. I told Julie that I am so glad that I have a daughter and a friend who are both great people and they are trying to change the world for the better. It feels good to be surrounded by goodness. Reconnecting with her is one of the best gifts I could get this Christmas.

Raka and I wish happy holidays to all of you.

December 16, 2010

{Kindle Holiday Pricing Only $1.99}

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December 14, 2010

{Should a father apologize to his daughter about his divorce?}

As Raka crossed seventeen and gently started to move with confidence to adulthood, she and I have been more open about life and our past. Raka has been talking about her challenges in friendships and her occasional insecurities about performing at her peak during a sporting event or academic testing. As Raka talks, I listen. Even though I empathize with her struggles to be better, deep inside I say “You are so cool girl. I really wish I were half as cool as you, half as wise as you, and half as caring about others as you are when I was your age.”  

Over time I started sharing my own regrets and challenges with Raka.  It started with explaining how my social circle shrunk completely after my divorce which occasionally can make me quite lonely. She listened and gave me a hug. Then one day we were talking about regrets and I finally told her that my biggest regret is that Raka is growing up in a divorced household. Raka tried to coax me and said, “Dad, I am better and stronger because of the divorce. You and Ma are each better because of the divorce.” 

I knew she was simply being nice and trying to pacify me. I asked her “how can you say that the divorce made you stronger when you still feel the pain?  How can you say that this was the right thing when you hide pictures of you with your mom and me together in your room?”

Raka was quiet. I was in sharing/preaching mode. I went on to tell Raka, “ Baby, I believe when two adults get married they can do whatever they want… until they get have a child. After a child is born, it becomes essential for each parent to redefine their identity as ‘Raka’s Dad’ and ‘Raka’s Mom.’  I think that understanding that the smallest distractions can, over time, result in a divorce which will change a child’s life forever, should guide parents in their actions on a daily basis.” 

Then I stopped to see that Raka was doodling on a piece of paper.  I was not sure that she was listening.  But the moment I stopped, she stopped doodling and looked up to me.  “Baby,” I continued.  “Think. Divorce is one of the only acts in life when two adults fail at something (in this case it is a marriage), but get to move forward with hardly any consequence. The consequence is borne entirely by the child as a life sentence.”

Today when I think back, I completely agree that a divorce is better than a bad marriage, but that is looking at life selfishly from the adult point of view. Should two parents, when they are blessed with the most amazing gift of all, a child, not strive hard every day to be the best parents they can be, and in the process keep the marriage together?

These thoughts and discussions of course made Raka wonder if I would like to get back together with her mom. I raised my eyebrows when I was asked the question.  I think by not answering I told Raka “not in a million years.”  I also realized that talking about what is the right thing to do is easy, but walking the talk is where the challenge is.

I feel bad and hate to think this candid discussion rekindled any hope in Raka to have a unified home with her dad and mom. 

Sorry baby.  I did not mean to hurt you, again!

December 8, 2010

{Being a Dad is Not About Baking Cookies for Your Daughter}

Last October when I was in Mumbai, Oni (my brother), Rachna (my sister-in-law), and I were up one night chatting about our parenting styles and other life issues. Usually Rachna and I go on talking while Oni dozes off in the middle of the conversation.

This time, somehow, Oni had become the center of the discussion. Rachna and I were pushing him on a multitude of issues ranging from not showing emotions to parenting. Oni was being his evasive best, but finally he snapped. “Being a dad is not about baking cookies for your daughter.” 

I knew that comment was directed at me.  I was hurt as that shot was uncalled for.  I wanted to go after him for the comment, but then decided that I loved him too much to pursue this any further.  I just let the statement go.

But the statement did not simply vanish. I did not forget and I have been thinking about it a lot since then. I do not know what Oni meant by the statement or why it was said, but as I thought hard, I realized that being a father cannot be judged by a few random actions. It made me go back to the basics of parenthood I learned during the journey of Raising a Father. Being a father takes a lifelong ongoing commitment to be present. The manifestation of being present could be baking cookies, driving your daughter to sports events, taking pictures as your daughter performs, or cooking for your daughter’s study group after they finish an immersion into the world of mathematics.

I finally came to peace with the statement when I realized that my relationship with Raka is only for us to savor, for us to evolve, and for no one else to judge.  Raka and I have striven hard to continue to be close, especially through Raka’s transition to a teen and now a near adult, and also through my insecurities in relationships and my uncertainty of how to be a better dad. 

We are enjoying every moment together, who could ask for more?

December 1, 2010

{Acting in the Present, Without the Help of Hindsight}

Raka’s senior season on the cross-country team did not start of well for her. She had a knee injury that caused her to lose nearly six weeks of practice, but eventually when she was back running, it was a delight to see her run with friends.  The first few races were tough. Raka knew she was capable of a faster time but there was a limit to what she could attain with her healing knee.  She progressed through the season and did better with every race and was ready and feeling good when the last race of the season arrived.

The weekend before the final race I realized that this would be Raka’s last cross-country race in high school.  Though I was sad I was absolutely determined to enjoy every moment of it.

The morning of the race, I visited the 5k track and ran/walked the whole course to identify my opportunity points – points where I would be able to see Raka and then dash to my next point.  Even if I was allowed to run with her I could not keep pace, so I identified the points to be the starting line, mile 1.1, mile 2.1, the last 400 yards, and of course the finish line.

The afternoon of the race was the most beautiful running day in Denver, ever.  It was sunny, in the 70’s, and all the runners were bubbling with enthusiasm.  Just before the race, Raka dashed to me, gave me a hug and whispered to me, “Dad, this is my last race.”  I gave her a tight hug and then she was off to warm-up with her friends.

Hundreds of girls started the race together. Raka was focused. As the runners took off, I dashed with my camera on a monopod to my first opportunity point. As I stood at opportunity point #1, Raka came through 15 seconds before my anticipated time.  She looked happy, she looked pain free, and she was pacing with another classmate of hers. I took my pictures and then dashed over the to 2.1 mile mark. 

As I ran across to the 2.1-mile opportunity point, I realized I was not the only parent who saw it as an opportunity point. We parents had our own race to get the same spot. Raka was there, this time 20 seconds ahead of time. I could see that this was Raka’s day, she was going to have her best run ever. I yelled for her, encouraging her to give her best and finish strong. Raka was still pacing with her classmate.

As I moved to the finish line to catch the last 400 yards of the race, I saw Raka still pacing with her friend, and then both finished the race within microseconds of each other. I went across and gave her a big smile. I was so proud of her. I was happy that she was out running, as during the time her knee was injured, I only dreamt of this moment. 

Then I had to open my mouth.

I asked her, “ Why did you hold back? You could have finished another 45 seconds faster. You looked strong today, why did hold back in the last mile?”

A sweating Raka looked at me as she stretched her upper body. “Dad,” she said, “You realize that all season my friend and I have competed to be the best of the JV group in our school.  Today was her last race too.  Yes, you are right, I could have finished faster, but I felt today neither she nor I deserved to lose.  So we ran together.  And together we passed more runners than we have each done on our own before.”  With that she finished her stretches and joined her other friends as they went on to cheer the runners in the next race.

I was quick to capture on my camera the moment of her walking away after the last cross-country race.  As I did that, the meaning of Raka’s words hit me.  “Today neither one of us deserved to lose” and “together we passed more runners than we have each done on our own before.” 

Wow, I told myself.  That is simply brilliant.  But what struck me more was Raka being in the moment, realizing this and acting on it.  Many I times, when I think back at life, in hindsight, I come up with things that I could have done differently.  But thinking back is different from acting in the present.  Raka simply did that.

I guess the opportunity points were more than an opportunity to take photographs of my daughter.  It taught me a valuable lesson in life.