Hey, Where’s the Coffee Machine?

April 16, 2013

Now that I’m married to an upcoming entrepreneur, I have genuine inside insight into the entrepreneurial life. And with all the accumulated wisdom of more than a year, allow me to list for you ten good reasons not to be an entrepreneur.

1. There’s no central airconditioning. In the kind of weather Bangalore is having now, you don’t need any other reason. If you are in a room without aircon during the day, it’s not an office, it’s a sauna.
2. You get to work for the worst boss in the world; one who sets unrealistic expectations, is impossible to please, and won’t take no for an answer.
3. Working flexitime means working all the time, even during dinner.
4. Having a home-office means you sleep in the office, every night. And so does your wife, and so do your kids. There is no home.
5. You get no paid vacation. Wait, let’s rephrase that. You get no pay and you get no vacation.
6. No benefits either.
7. No appraisals, which is good, but no increments either, which is not so good.
8. The stock options are great, if only they were worth the paper they aren’t even printed on.
9. When the internet connection goes down (which it frequently does), you can’t put your feet up and wait for someone else to fix it.
10. After lunch you have to wash the dishes. If you want coffee, you have to make it, and then you still have to wash the dishes. If you don’t – no more coffee!

Need I say more?


Better Late Than Never

April 10, 2013

Yes, it’s been more than two years since my first and only book (yet) was published. There have been many demands for photos and a few of those have been met by way of a real, physical photo album – which is the best way, really.

However, not everyone is so fortunate. For those of you who haven’t or can’t see the real mccoy, here’s another feeble attempt to convey the beauty and majesty of the Himalayas, as I saw it in that memorable excursion.

I’ve created a whole new page for these photos. Enjoy. And leave some comments, please.


A Love/Hate Affair

April 8, 2013

As a kid, I loved summer holidays. Mind you, I loved school too. All the same – sleep till 7.30, then spend the rest of the day reading books, sleeping, meeting friends, and, if one was very lucky, going swimming – what’s not to love?

So in a sense, I don’t get what the hullabaloo is about these days? Why all the stress over keeping the kids “busy”? When I was a kid, kids kept themselves busy. These things don’t change – why do we fret over it so much these days?

I’ll tell you why. When I was a kid, my mother wasn’t working. She worked for a short time as a teacher, but even then, she was home when I was. So, though she didn’t have to do much to keep me busy (at least, that’s my version of the truth), she also didn’t have to worry about having someone reliable around to watch over us, she was right there. After all, even six or seven is too young to trust. I couldn’t dream of keeping kids that age at home all day long unsupervised. All sorts of crises might ensue.

When you’re the mom who’s working outside of the home, it’s a different story. Keeping kids at home all day means having a reliable someone around to watch over them. Sending them out means having a reliable someone at hand to ferry them around from swimming pool to friends’ homes to tennis class (or whatever) and back. And this reliable someone might need to know how to drive too – at least in our case, neither swimming pool nor tennis court is walking distance from home. Most of the activities aren’t walking distance, unless you choose activities entirely based on distance from home.

This year, we had a choice of two summer camps. One at the current daycare, one lane away from home and very easily walkable. The other, at the old daycare, a good long drive 10-km each way through dramatic traffic jams. Guess which one we chose? The far away one, of course. Why? Well, the activities looked more interesting. While convenience is important, it’s also important that the kids do something at least remotely interesting and meaningful at summer camp. The nearby summer camp looked as if it was designed for 3-5 year olds and nothing had been done to enhance the program for the older kids. Spending an extra 3k per head for drawing and crafts for almost seven-year-olds just didn’t make sense.

And, of course, we love their old daycare.

So we undertook to do the long drive each way, one of us dropping them, the other picking them up.

All very well and good. Then their tennis coach announced that the weekend tennis batch they’d been part of for the last two-and-a-half years had disbanded itself for the duration of the summer holidays, so could we please put them into the evening tennis batch? Our options were 3.30-4.30 (not an option) or 5.30-6.30 (siiiiiiigh). So now not only do I have to do the long drive to the old daycare right after work five days a week, I also have to do it early enough to do the even longer drive to the tennis court and make it by 5.20 or so, three days a week. I have been offered the option of shifting my own tennis session to the same slot so that both things get done at the same time (and it saves me quite a bit of driving too) but I don’t like it. 5.30 p.m. is not my time for tennis. I’ve been going for tennis 6 – 7 a.m. three days a week for about seven years now. Evenings are for office work, or for time with family, or for housework. It’s too big a mental shift for me. So I ferry them to tennis in the evening and ferry myself to tennis the next morning, regularly, every other day.

If you think I’m having a hard time of it, don’t think Amit is getting off lightly either. It’s his job to take the kids swimming at least twice a week. He’s doing it in the early morning hours, dropping them with their breakfast at daycare by 9 a.m.

And then, of course, since our weekends, which have been booked for tennis for the last 30 months or so, both Saturday and Sunday morning, have now been unexpectedly freed up, we had to go and fill them up with other activities, didn’t we? Couldn’t just grab the opportunity to lay back and take it easy for a bit, could we? No – not in the summer holidays, no way. So now we have tabla class for Tara 9.30 – 11.30 on Saturday and Sunday, and a drawing class for Mrini – just to keep things interesting – on Saturday afternoon, 3-6 p.m.

Phew! I don’t know about keeping the kids busy – this summer holiday is sure keeping the parents busy!

But on the other hand – if they don’t go for all these things during the holidays, when else will they ever get to do it? School days, it’s a struggle just getting through the day plain vanilla without any toppings. When school reopens, swimming is going to go out the window for sure, and I really doubt that tennis, tabla, and drawing classes can all continue as per the current schedule. One or more of those activities is going to have to be dropped, or else I have to give up work and spend at least half my day managing my kids’ timetable. Choices, choices.

Anyway, there’s one thing I love about summer holidays. The kids don’t have to be in a school bus by 7.15, which means I don’t have to get up at 5.45 a.m. I’ve been sleeping till 6.30 and on Sunday, due to the change in their tennis class, I slept till 7! And not only that, after dragging myself off to get dosas for breakfast, I went back to bed from 9 – 9.30! Amazing. Three days a week I still get up at 5 a.m. to go for tennis, but now, four days a week, I can sleep till past 6. Since I make a determined effort to get to bed around 10-10.15 p.m. on most days (and it really does require a determined effort) that means that for the entire duration of the summer holidays so far, I’ve been getting close to eight hours of sleep four times a week (and seven hours the other three days). I hate to admit it, but it has made a huge difference to my energy level during the day. I used to feel sleepy while driving to work at 8.30 a.m. Now I’m awake even when I get to bed at 10.15 p.m. Of course, I completely agree that sleeping that much is nothing short of slothful and excessively lazy and a complete waste of time. Who can afford to spend eight hours a day sleeping when there’s so much to do? In fact, it’s one reason that I absolutely refuse to consider moving my tennis session to the evening. I’ll only spend the morning hours sleeping, making it eight hours a day all seven days of the week, which is nothing short of criminal. True, I need the sleep, but still – one can’t give in to every single thing the body demands. Look at the number of people who regularly get by on five or six hours of sleep, after all. Or less. Seriously, they have so much more time to get things done.

So no – this state of bliss can’t last long. But that’s not to say that I’m not enjoying it while it lasts. After all, a summer holiday comes around only once a year, so we might as well make the most of it. Or at least stop complaining about all the driving.


C’mon Kids, Let’s Do Homework

April 3, 2013

Wait a minute. Homework? What homework? Exams are over and school is closed. Report cards, even, have been delivered. Who does homework at this time?

Well, I do.

Ok, first, the exam thing. For a long time, I’ve been of the opinion that studying for the purpose of passing exams is just the wrong way round. One must study to learn. Passing exams is a fringe benefit, of little utility in the important task of learning. Yes, I know it’s a crazy point of view in today’s competitive world, but that’s the way I’ve approached education since I was 18 and though I haven’t acquired a string of letters after my name to show how educated I am, I have studied literature, psychology, German, and archaeology and been very involved in each as I studied it. I can’t say something as definitive as that I’ve learnt more or better than I would have with a more test-centric approach, but I do believe that I enjoyed studying more than I would have otherwise, and that I remember and carry forward more of that education than I would otherwise have. (It’s also true, of course, that by this time I was studying only subjects that I was genuinely interested in, which probably helped too.)

Also, when I was in school, at which point I still was stuck with horribly boring subjects like history, geography, and particularly civics, I even then had a long(ish) term view of learning. I tried to keep up to date with my work during the year, and didn’t break much of a sweat when exams rolled around. I did revise, of course, not saying I didn’t, but I didn’t swot, I never stayed up all night, and I never, ever carried my books to school.

One thing I’ve always felt. If you swot like crazy the day before the exam, you spew it all out and the next day, it’s gone, wiped clean as though it never was. If you study over a longer period of time, it stays for longer. I’m fairly confident there should be some studies and statistics supporting this theory.

So with my kids, too, I want them to study around the year, to understand concepts for the sake of understanding, to work for the sake of work and to be ready and able to take a test on any given day. A test is fine as a tool to evaluate their understanding. I don’t see it as an end in itself.

Having said all that, I never intended to be the homework kind of mom. Homework is the student’s headache. In fact, it should be the school’s headache. Why do schools give homework to six year olds anyway? Education, in its entirety, is the school’s job. My job is to have fun with my kids and to teach them the kind of extracurricular things that you can’t leave to the school.

So for the first couple of years, I told my kids to do their homework, but for the most part, I kept myself out of it. I’m a lousy teacher anyway, simply not cut out to handle young kids, not even my own.

But what to do? Last October I was summoned to school and given a talking to. If I didn’t get involved and soon, at least one of the kids was going to be hopelessly overwhelmed by numbers in a confusion she might never recover from.

Well, I couldn’t have that, could I? Not me, I was a math genius in school, I loved numbers, they delighted me with their magical ways. So I ground my teeth and settled down to the task of being the homework mom.

It wasn’t easy. The kids were distracted, disinterested, lazy, stupid, bored, and everything in between. Having two of them to handle didn’t help. When one finally settled down and started to work, the other would start up some new form of distraction. It took many sessions, and much lung power in the form of shouting on my part and wailing on theirs before we got some kind of a truce agreed upon.

It also took me a while to figure out how to go about it. Some concepts they were being taught in school were just too tough for their age, or so I felt. Other concepts were within their grasp, but needed a lot more work than their school had time for (hence the need for homework and the homework mom).

I dumbed it down and dumbed it down. One exercise, for example, had kids do two-digit addition, like say 23+5. Then, after they did that, they had to write two “subtraction facts” based on that addition. A subtraction fact is: 28-5=23; or 28-23=5. So basically, they are trying to get at: a+b=c; therefore c-a=b and c-b=a. Even when I spell that out to the kids, they get a glazed look in their eyes.

These kids enjoyed a Montessori environment for the first three years of school. So I took objects and tried to work it out with them. Guess what? They didn’t even get, for quite a long time, that if 3+4=7, then, necessarily, 4+3 is also = 7. They still had to work it out each time, again and again. They could not intuitively just “see” that adding two sets of things either this one first or that one first, would always give the same result. If you don’t get a+b = b+a, what hope is there of getting a+b=c, therefore, c-b=a? None.

Well, I kept at it. I worked with numbers from 1 through about 12 and did it written, with objects, and with mental math. Eventually, after many days of work, Mrini just “got” it. Tara, I’m still not sure.

So then I started to set them sums. Very easy sums of the a+b=c variety with one number usually single-digit and the other either single-digit or two digits. On the other half of the page, I wrote out the corresponding “subtraction facts” for them. After many days of doing these sums, finally, today, Mrini realized that she didn’t need to really add the numbers. By looking at the other side of the page, she could write the answer. And then, by looking at the addition, she could write out the subtraction facts, without really needing to work it out. (Example: 23 + 5 + ?; 28 – 5 = ?; 28 – 23 = ?) She looked at me to see if I would mind her taking these shortcuts, but I was all like, wow, finally!

Hallelujah!

I can see, now, the occasional joy of teaching young kids. When they get it, it’s like a major breakthrough, like the sun shining through the clouds. I also realize that it’s not something you can point out to the child. Point it out as many times as you like, you just get a puzzled look in response. You have to just let them work at it and work at it and work at it, until suddenly they see it themselves.

Tara, now. When we went to school to get report cards, the kids came with us. Now here’s one of the little things that make me love this school. They had a small set of desks and chairs and papers and a couple of teachers and the kids who had come were invited (not mandatorily made) to go and do some work. The work Tara was given, or chose to do, was division. She got a bunch of stones and was given a set of questions of the 12 / 4 type. They aren’t into fractions yet, so whatever doesn’t go exactly gets counted as Remainder (or, if you prefer, reminder). It was amazing how quickly she picked it up. As far as I know, they hadn’t done this in class before that.

So after we came home, she’s been working on division. Never mind that she’s just about got her addition straight, not very sure about subtraction, and is relatively unconcerned with multiplication. Division, with stones and groups and reminders, she can do. And she will do it till her hands fall off, her pencil breaks, or she runs out of paper.

The best part is, after doing sums for a good long time, Tara insists that I give her “expand” and “number names” to wrap up the session. Both of these are really easy things that she doesn’t need to be doing anymore, but for her it’s like dessert. I did all the other stuff, so now give me Expand and Number Names. (Expand is like, 236 = 200 + 30 + 6; Number Names is like 236 = two hundred and thirty six)

Initially when their teacher started sending them home without any homework other than “revise” I was all like, oh, we’re done with homework, let’s go play badminton. After a week or so I realized, hey, maybe there’s worksheets or something coming up, we’d better do some homework. Then, the kids told me, Worksheet? No, we’re done with those. I was like, when? They were like, oh, last week. Math was first. Then Hindi.

Great.

So then I said, ok, but we’re going to do homework anyway. And, freed from the restrictions of homework and worksheets, we made up our agenda to suit ourselves. And I intend to keep at it throughout the holidays. Or so I hope.

Homework, after all, is not for the school and not for exams. It’s for learning – and learning must go on.

At least for now – before the kids grow up enough to say, what, homework? During the summer holidays? Surely you’re joking, mom – and go off to climb the mango tree.


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