2017 Year in Review

Winding down another eventful year, our first properly living back in the U.S. in some time (1999 for Kirstin!). There’s no denying 2017 had challenges, but we’ve had plenty of adventures and good times, and enter the new year sanguine about the opportunities in the coming year.

The boys left an idyllic situation in Mexico: accepted and beloved at their school; a wonderful nanny and circle of friends; and regular outings in and around Mexico on a weekly basis. They are hitting their groove now at their new school, but it’s taken time. After four years I frankly forgot how much we’re asking of them with each move, this devil’s bargain of rationalizing it’ll all be worth it in the long run.

My transition has been candidly tough as well. After feeling a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day by the end in Mexico, I spent my first months in DC feeling uneasy. Totally expected given a new job and new city, but for a hyper-type A like myself, no bueno. But much like the Monty Python peasant, I got better.

Amid all this, Kirstin has managed to be our rock, quietly enduring a rotating series of tantrums from her three boys while plugging away steadily at the transition.

With my usual wordy prologue out of the way, now to the updates. I currently work on “the Line,” which has the reputation of attracting folks who are smart, clever, and able to have fun with things. That’s very much been my experience. It’s also nirvana for grammar nerds; I’m decidedly average in catching errors among this group.

Of course I continue to have concerns. But I took this job to 1) read and get smarter on policy issues, 2) learn the bureaucracy that is “main state”, 3) travel, ideally to some places I’d otherwise never go, and 4) have an opportunity to influence, in whatever small way, our approach to foreign policy. And the job has thus far delivered in spades, even if the ratio isn’t what I’d envisioned. I’m writing part of this from Ottawa (after London, Kabul, and Khartoum trips). Whatever gripes I have, I try to remember how lucky I am to be in this position in the first place.

I want to give a special shout out to the back porch, our cubicled alcove of misfits with whom I’ve spent many hours giggling. They put up well with my usual stream of puns and non sequitors.

Kirstin, as noted, has generously focused on getting the family adjusted since we moved, a decided drop in stature from head of Chemistry at an elite international school. As she starts the new year though, she’ll be working as a volunteer “Insect Ambassador” at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, giving mini-lessons on the various creepies and crawlies. If you ever wondered who shows off the tarantulas and butterflies there, it’s overqualified souls whose life circumstances mean they have the time and inclination to educate capital visitors pro bono.

Ruben is almost 5’4″ and not quite 11 yet, and Kirstin and he can now share shoes. He is benefitting greatly from the well-structured youth sports programs in Falls Church: demonstrably more comfortable in soccer and basketball, and I can see a couple of years of this is going to do wonders for his coordination and confidence. He remains a map fanatic, and overjoyed to share whatever random sports or geography trivia he stumbles across. And, true to his word, Ruben has started guitar, after three years of piano, and sticking to it with his usual tenacity.

Ruben says: Moving was hard but exciting.I made many new friends. My close friend moved away. I am [well had in the future] having fun in Charleston South Carolina.

Rohan is crushing it academically and nevertheless struggling socially. It’s sad how we can reflect on childhood insecurities, laugh at how trivial they were, and yet do nothing to assuage the fears of the next generation. That said, he’s slowly making friends and getting comfortable at school. He’s continued in piano and willing to start martial arts in the new year to scratch his “constantly moving/abhors competitive sports” itch. He continues to read during any (minecraft) free moment, and to enjoy cooking, though primarily if meat or desserts are involved.

Rohan says: I LOVED this christmas. I opened one present on christmas eve and it was AWESOME.

I get to listen to lots of great podcasts on my commute and during runs. Including those with my favorite reads for posterity’s sake:

Version Control— really fun and engaging sci fi read.

99% Invisible– broadly on design, they cover a wide range of interesting stories. One highlight was Lance Wyman’s work on the Mexico City 1968 Olympics signboards.

Revisionist History– Malcolm Gladwell in spoken form. Most educational for me was on Churchill and WWII.

Standard Deviation— modern fiction, particularly resonant for parents with smart but unique kids. Not about math.

More Perfect– on notable supreme court cases, but in a decidedly palatable (radiolab) style way. Had no idea about the origins of the NRA and relatively recent shift on 2nd amendment politics.

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Our travel highlight this year was Machu Pichu, which deservedly got its own post.

Some other photos and highlights:

We finished this year with a mega-family reunion in Charleston, South Carolina, with both sides of the extended family enjoying the charm and (relative) winter warmth of the South. Our best wishes to you and yours for the coming year. Anand, Kirstin, Ruben, and Rohan.

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Peru–April 2017

Just returned from an amazing trip to Peru, highlighted by a five day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu– 45 kilometers, three nights in a tent, and incredible views. Highly recommended.

Worth noting– I hate camping. I enjoy hiking, and love physical challenges, but I strongly prefer ending them with a hot shower and a bed. So when Kirstin came back from book club a few years ago and said “we should hike the inca trail with the boys when they are old enough”, my first response was like with unwanted work– ignore it and hope it goes away. But, a guiding principle of my parenting is that I want the boys to be more well-rounded than me, so in the end I was a willing, albeit reluctant and slightly grumpy participant. That I caught a cold the night before we departed didn’t help, but then again, it’s much nicer to be draining out in nature than in an office.

Ruben says: It was not to hard but not to easy.The second day was supposed to be the most challenging but it wasn’t to hard[for me at least] .Over all the inca trail was a little easier easier than I expected but still difficult.It was very fun especially with our guide.I enjoyed seeing the amazing nature and climbing to 14,000ft or 4200m.

Rohan says: I enjoyed The inca trail, although I did complain, I recommend to you.

Back to dad. I can’t say enough about the food. Expecting something warm and basic, instead every meal was multi-course and super-high quality. It’s arguably the best I’ve ever eaten. Our chef apparently has won awards, so I can’t say if it would be same for other expeditions. I foolishly strayed once from his food, trying chicha (corn drink) en route with the porters, which gave me a “Yobogoya” moment. I don’t recommend that.

There are several options for seeing Machu Pichu, including trains directly to Aguascalientes followed by a short (but windy and bumpy) bus ride. From there you can see the ruins as well as do short hikes, or sign up ahead of time for one or two day hikes. To do the full inca trail hike (normally four days, but can be five if you want the flexibility to go slowly/endure meltdowns, as we did), you need to sign up several months ahead. But you just carry day packs while you have a team to carry tents, food, etc. Quite manageable if you can handle the distance and elevation. Plan accordingly and ping us if you want more specific details.

2016 Year in Review

Lots of excitement as we close out 2016, knowing our time in Mexico is coming to an end. I’ve battled various health issues this year, beginning with a cracked tooth and ending with shoulder surgery to repair a torn tendon. It’s put me out of sports commission, including running, for several weeks. But given the amount of sports I’ve played/dumb things I’ve done, avoiding surgery till now is a huge win. Meanwhile, I spend a few hours a week with a very nice but clearly sadistic physical therapist who insists on moving my arm exactly where it doesn’t want to go.

Kirstin has served as Head of Chemistry at Greengates for the last year and a half. Unlike U.S. high schools, in British schools that’s a big deal, both in prestige and workload. She’s crushed it and clearly will be missed when we depart this summer, though she’s looking forward to a reprieve after an intense couple of years. Otherwise, K continues to run regularly and patiently herds the boys on Sunday bike rides on Reforma.

Ruben is now 5’1″ (or more, if you ask him). As an almost 10 year old, this is frankly insane. But given I hit 6’2″ by age 13ish, he’s been blessed/cursed with the same early onset height. Gigantism aside, he remains a nice, considerate, sensitive kid. He continues to love maps, and has taken an increasing interest in the NFL and trivia in general, peppering us with non sequitor questions, a tendency for which I have only myself to blame. And he’s embraced his genetic roots as a long distance runner, knocking out a couple of 5k’s this year.

Rohan is a voracious reader and is slowly learning to control his temper. He’s tall for his age as well, has taken a strong interest in cooking, and quite enjoys music. We do karaoke occasionally at home, either with my 2005 machine or connecting to YouTube for more contemporary music. Lukas Graham’s Seven Years has been his favorite, since when you’re seven (or 37), commonalities like that matter. And like a good little brother, Rohan has also started running, though I get the feeling he’d lie around indefinitely with a book if we didn’t require him to move.

We were able to do a lot of traveling as always. Highlights included California for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary (side note– 50 years! I can barely focus 50 seconds these days); catching up with family and friends near and far in Vermont; hiking in the mountains of Oaxaca; and five weddings in a three month window to close out the year.

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On the band front, we had a great run before summer transfer season stole most of our group. I remained an old voice grasping at my youth but our group had real talent, and I can’t thank the gang enough for giving me one more chance to live the dream. Here’s one video (recorded with Ruben’s unsteady hand) and audio of the first set of our last show:

Audio of first set of our last show (my best moments at 9:39; 18:24; 37:36)

We’ll be returning to Washington DC next summer after four years in Mexico (visitors– you have till June to make it happen!). I’ll be working for the new Secretary of State, helping prepare briefing papers and “advancing” trips (traveling ahead to help arrange visits in cities worldwide). It will be fun, glamorous, important work, trying to determine what our policy priorities are and how to best shape messages to resonate locally.

Finally, no doubt many are wondering how I’m feeling about the election. As a government stooge I have to be measured, but here are a few thoughts:

  1. When I signed up for the foreign service, some asked what I’d do if I had to work for an administration with whom I didn’t see eye to eye. My answer, admittedly corny, was that my interest in public service was to the country and principles, not to any individual or party. And if I did see things differently, I’d rather be on the inside, in a position to present my point of view and hopefully mitigate things.
  2. I realize “we’ll be fine” may sound empty. I think it’s because we’re not saying the second part– we’ll be fine because we’re going to make it fine. And I’ll be doing my part. Elections, after all, are intramural. We’re in this together no matter how strongly we may disagree on things.
  3. For my left leaning friends, I recommend both Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their Own Land. Both helped me better understand a point of view quite different from my own. In our 2016 echo chamber, reading out of the box was super-useful. It didn’t particularly change my personal opinions, but it helped me reflect on others’ motivations. If we’re going to find middle ground, it needs to start with getting past the strong emotions, justified as they may be, and trying to listen honestly to why so many in our country feel the way they do. Seeing things from the other person’s point of view is step one.
  4. For my right leaning friends, I don’t have a specific book recommendation, but rather recommend you speak to someone from the other side. Try to understand why this election feels categorically different than in the past, and appreciate that the ability to separate policy from rhetoric isn’t a privilege everyone has. Just as many on the left need to better understand the systemic problems afflicting much of the rust belt, so to do many on the right need to better understand the systemic problems that remain with race and gender.
  5. And to help us all see the long view geopolitically, since nothing is ever as good or bad as it seems (except perhaps the Seahawks winning, and then losing the Super Bowl), I recommend The Next Hundred Years. In lighter fare, I recommend The Disappearing Spoon (fun backstories on the periodic table; #nerdalert).

Thanks to Martin for the closing pic, from our visit to Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo (yes, the Shawshank place).  Hope is indeed a good thing. Here’s hoping for a wonderful 2017 for everyone. Anand, Kirstin, Ruben and Rohan.

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2015 Year in Review

Yet another long hiatus but we’re back. Nothing amusingly life threatening like last time; just the start of a new year and I’m for once in the mood to write.

2015 has been an excellent year for the clan. We continue to be in Mexico City, now for an additional two years as I was able to secure a second posting here. My work now is similar to what I was doing in Chennai, working on press and social media for the Embassy. I’m still enjoying the foreign service life, have a great group of co-workers, and feel like I’m doing “meaningful” work. I continue to feel exceedingly lucky that I get to do this.

Kirstin has been teaching at a British International School here (Greengates), and this year they made her head of the Chemistry department. I’m pleased that she’s getting some opportunities to advance at work, which she’s otherwise sacrificed for my career pursuits. The boys go to the school as well, and are still at the age where it’s cool to have mom at school. They’ve all adopted some Britishisms (Kirstin marks papers and invigilates; Rohan tells us to carry on), which amuses me to no end. It also gives me a chance to ask the boys if their teachers talk like this– and then do Monty Python accents– which blows their mind that dad can change accents (badly) the way my mind was blown by Hans Gruber so many years ago.

K has also had a running resurgence, knocking out two half marathons this year and finishing third in the foreign ministry 10k in April. She probably spends too much time worrying about how fast she used to be (who doesn’t?), and she has to be mindful of tendinitis and mileage, but overall she’s crushing it. Plus, we have a good group here that runs nearby trails at a national park (Desierto) on Saturday mornings, which makes for a great start to weekends. Credit to Hugo, the great motivator.

Ruben turns nine soon (!!). More than anything, he’s nice. That’s the comment we get consistently from teachers and friends, and K and I regularly wonder where that came from. He’s also lanky and awkward like K and I were (are?), but what he lacks in coordination he makes up for in enthusiasm. He gets along well with others, continues to love maps and cars, and sometimes watching/playing sports with dad. He’s also doing well at rock climbing classes with his ideal height to weight ratio of infinity…

Rohan has rounded out nicely as an almost seven year old. He’s a reading machine, enjoys playing with his big bro (about 80% of the time) and is thriving in his swimming classes. He’s lanky by most measures, except when compared to Ruben, and enjoys roughhousing with me until I pull my patented “lie on top of him and stifle all movement” as I did with my friends in my youth. Having kids has gotten even more fun in a purely selfish sense as I get to do things or have an excuse to do things I used to enjoy, under the guise of engaging the kids, including watching sports, playing video games and eating too much pizza. They are enablers.

In social news we got the proverbial band back together. Or rather, we’re at a big Embassy, and our guitarist/spirit animal rightly noted it was a shame there was no Embassy band. So a few months and several practices later, Duck and Cover has three shows under our belt. For those who don’t know, I’ve sang in garage bands periodically through the years, beginning in college, as well as countless nights of karaoke in Japan. As far as the band, it’s all covers as the name implies, and there’s some real talent in the group. For me it’s been humbling as I now understand the realities of “old guy” voice. I’ve lost my top tenor notes from youth and have to constantly pace myself so I don’t sing myself hoarse (as you can hear in the clip below). It’s also weird not being the loud one in the group (ahem, Staci) but nevertheless it’s super-cool to be doing something musical and creative again. Big props to Eric for making this all happen. And as far as the clip, it’s a classic song I last did in my college band in 1995 (Noise Complaint!). Frankly I sound far worse now, but at least I learned to do the harmonica part passably in Yeary’s absence.

Mexico City, as we’ve nagged before, is a hidden gem. Our doors are open through summer 2017 for anyone interested in visiting. Wishing everyone great things in 2016. Anand, Kirstin, Ruben and Rohan

2015 family in yellowstone

 

Music and Rohanisms

I put the boys to bed most nights, singing to them during their bath and teethbrushing. It’s a chance for me to indoctrinate them with my favorites*, an eclectic mix of 60’s croons, 80’s alternative, a dash of showtunes and whatever else comes to mind (including, for a spell, the national anthem). The boys have really taken to it, singing along (sort of) and requesting their favorites.

*Many of my non-Indian friends have been similarly tricked, asking me to order when we go to Indian restaurants, and only later discovering, that rather than ordering a representative spread, I was simply ordering my favorites. Heh.

Ruben is old enough now to try to sing background vocals, usually rhythmlessly but with gusto. He’ll belt out “duke of earl” or “you can dance” (save the last dance for me) ad nauseum, or at least ad he’s blue in the face. Here’s one of Ruben’s favorites, an obscure late 80’s alternative song, set to an unrelated random video that checks another Ruben box: Pure by The Lightning Seeds.

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Rohan is a source of regular amusement with his impressive but unpolished verbal skills. A sampling:

(Hearing Cooper barking in the courtyard)– I see Cooper!

(Doing his U.S. States map, which announces states quietly as you click on them)–Lichigan! Alagama!! Alaigee!!!

(Proud of his Thomas the train shirt)–My shirt is made of Thomas!

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A book recommendation, particularly for my TamBram Indian-American cohort with Chennai roots– “Tamarind City” by Bishwanath Ghosh. He covers a lot of the history of Chennai, from all the poorly maintained British and other historical relics in the city, to the traditional Iyer and Iyengar regions of Chennai, and other interesting people and stories in the city. I’ve spent plenty of time in Chennai (prior to living here) but there are lots of backstories I simply never learned, either because no one talks about it, or I wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, Ghosh writes about it from a newcomer and outsider’s perspective, as kind of a travelogue, so it’s both engaging and informative.

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I recently attended a lecture on linguistic similarities between Tamil and Japanese. I’d made this argument when studying Japanese many moons ago, so it was nice to hear there is some actual scholarship backing my claims. I learned much like koko/soko/asoko/doko, Tamil used to have that second form of “there”, meaning not near the listener, but rather “way over there”, like out of sight, just as Japanese does. They are both SOV (verb at the end) languages, the base vowel sounds (a, i, u, e, o) are the same, though Tamil has short and long, and one of the ancient Tamil verse meters is 57577, which, shortened, is haiku.

I’m sure some of these are a stretch but it’s a neat set of linkages.

 

 

Our “native” place

India is all about where you’re from. Since I have roots here, saying I’m from the U.S./America/California/SouthernCalifornia/nearDisneyland is rarely enough. Instead, I usually get “where you are basically from?” in some variant until I affirm my Indian roots. There are times when I try to emphasize my American-ness (so I don’t get the “when is the American officer coming” look), but most of the time I’m happy to acknowledge Tamil Nadu as my native place. Quite frankly it would be dumb not to use such a stellar icebreaker.

Conveniently, my parents’ native villages are located in a district I was slated to visit for work this year. Neither of my parents lived in these villages, but roots are roots, even if generations have passed. So I did a couple of days of media contact and outreach, and then had my family join me for the weekend to visit the homeland. I’m really happy K and the kids were able to see the villages, and that my parents were with us to explain everything. I continue to feel exceedingly lucky about this posting and all the perks it has afforded us.

Visiting Gangaikondan (my dad’s village) first, we stopped by the main temple. On our last visit, in 1995, the temple was basically abandoned, but a helpful local girl guided us through some of the chambers. We entered one and it was straight out of Indiana Jones (sans monkey brains), as we were greeted by hundreds of bats swooping berzerkedly through the room. As my sister and I cringed in fear, the girl looked at us incredulously–“you’re afraid of bats?”

I had hoped to leave a better impression this time. We walked into the temple, now renovated and more or less operational. It’s on a large ground, so there are temple chambers but also untended land within the perimeter. After a few minutes walking inside, Ruben announces in a panic, “I have to go poo poo. Now.” We look around helplessly, and ask the locals for options. They all point to the untended land, full of bushes and brush and who knows what else. K grimaces– in a temple? Is that even allowed? But Ruben clearly was having issues, so my mom (what a star!) marched him out to the bushes and facilitated the deed. As a cadre of villagers watched, I thought, so much for impressing the locals, unless they appreciate the seamless transition from consecrate to desecrate. Or defecate, as it were. Sigh.

On the other hand, there were still bats, and I stood bravely without flinching, so at least I have that going for me.

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Our visit to the two villages and a local waterfall/getaway place was chronicled in Kardashian-like fashion by a local Tamil newspaper and WebTV interview. I’m surprised my ever-expanding head fit in the pictures.

And the video (apologies to Savitri Aunty for my Tamil): Dinamalar WebTV spot

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Other, unrelated notes: on a drive recently, Ruben started asking questions about dinosaurs (where’d they go, what’s “extinct”?, etc.). Upon asking what they eat, Rohan eagerly jumped in, with the usual two-year old staccato (you can tell they have something to say, and they’re working super hard to formulate the words, but it ends up coming out with pregnant pauses after each word). “DINOSAURS…EAT…lunch. Mockery aside, Rohan is actually pretty verbal, though only fast when irritated (“I don’t like that”).

Ruben, joining the phonics fiesta, just asked us “what’s puhdahf?” Eh? And he shows us: pdf. Reminds me of Manik’s friend who thought North Carolina’s leading grocery store was K-Roger…

Sports, that fickle beast

It’s been a good sports-watching month, particularly for tennis. Between the Chennai Open earlier this month, and the Australian Open happening roughly in our time zone, we’re enjoying high quality matches and watching them at a reasonable hour. I’m not quite the sports nut I was in my youth, so no more getting up at 2AM unless the Seahawks are in the playoffs (yes, in other words, no more getting up at 2AM. very funny). Instead, I have enjoyed latching onto local favorites and/or time zone-convenient options (sumo in Japan, soccer in Germany, cricket and tennis here).

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On the other hand, it’s been a poor sports-playing stretch, both pre and post dengue. I managed to participate in our local tennis tournament today (kudos to Kataneh for organizing!). I knew about two games into my first match that I was in trouble, and crashed out in both singles and doubles. Even though I don’t feel sick, I have minimal endurance these days and spent most of my matches feeling uncoordinated and slow. On the other hand, dengue didn’t make me miss all those easy forehands, as much as I’d like to believe it.

Further helping me to rationalize my shabby performance, I lost to a professional soccer player, who’s visiting family and doing cool things while in country:

Joanna Lohman and Lianne Sanderson changing lives

In other sports news, I’m winning my football pool for the first time in ages, one game ahead with just the super bowl to play. Unfortunately this has given me two solid weeks to second guess my SB pick and try to outwit 2nd place Carmen, who manages to win with irritating regularity.

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One of the perks of Consulate life is brushes with interesting and accomplished people. On Wednesday I had tea with Howard Gardner and attended his public lecture at IIT Madras. Gardner, as you may know, is famous for Multiple Intelligences theory. Though my area of cognitive psychology was far afield from his work, I always considered his research particularly appealing, and god knows I lectured about MI enough in all those Intro Psych classes. I even used his work as the basis for a speech I wrote for International Education Week at the Consulate last year. So it was great to meet him, as well as wife Ellen Winner, an accomplished Psychologist in her own right. It turns out Ellen hired my dove-bar eating colleague Jef, who just had his second child (welcome Hazel!). It’s a small world indeed. And now I’m craving a dove bar.

Then, later that same day I ended up at a party hanging out with Rajinikanth’s daughter Soundarya. The advantage of a comparative sleepy-town like Chennai is small frys like myself get to pretend we are medium frys, at least for a few years.

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We’re having a birthday brunch for Ruben tomorrow. Once again Lightning McQueen is making an appearance on the cake. I’ll post pictures of the big boy and friends this week.