Notes from Suburbia – Is New York the Greatest City in the World?

Manhattan, New York City

New York City. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

What’s so great about the city of New York? Crowded and dirty are some of the words that are often used to describe it. Digging deeper you will see the people turning up their noses at the city are not immune to its charms after all. They whip out their cell phones as much as the guy with the Nikon, catching a New York moment here, a gothic doorway there.

Right after stepping out of the Grand Central Terminal, a train station that is instrumental in shaping the country since its inception on Feb 2 (1913), we were greeted by the all-too-familiar thick and smoky city air. Steam from the subway grates rose up to meet the whiff of the kebab stand on the curb, and the cold, heavy March air held on to it longer than it should. Walking down the few blocks (from 42nd St to the 61st) played out like a well-orchestrated play. Walk. Stop at crossing. Wait for walk sign. Or don’t. Check map on phone. Cross. Walk again. In between a cacophony of honks and chatter. Anyone who has marched a few blocks in this well-planned city will attest to the fact.

Big brands lined the streets, and architectural marvels, both modern and medieval reached out to the sky, gray and dull as it was on the day we visited. For us, being from the suburbs, it was a leisurely Saturday, as we took in the sights and smells of city life, getting away from the complacency of the unremarkable and the unexceptional.

I understand that for many, a trip to this city means getting on a plane, and they want to hit all the talked-about spots and get all the right pictures. If you are one of them, please go to the official city tourism site.

Even on an ordinary spring day when the branches hung bare, the flowers were yet to bloom, and the ground was covered in slush from blizzards past, the city attracted its usual share of people. They stopped in their tracks to look up, clutching phones and cameras, hoping to catch the highest arch or the tallest tower. It’s one of those things that the locals take in their stride. It’s the price you pay for living in the Big Apple.

We continued to walk till we reached Central Park, spread out over 843 acres, green and inviting, hemmed in by the surrounding gray and black. The ratio of green to grayscale is something to be proud of, especially when you compare New York to other top cities of the world. Not one to go to zoos (we like our animals free in the wild), we made an impromptu decision to visit this city sanctuary. Apart from the grizzly bears, Betty and Veronica, the rest of the animals seemed to be in sync with city life. Since 1984, the Wildlife Conservation Society is in charge of the place, and they have added a domestic animal area, which seemed quite popular with the toddlers. We had gone there mainly for the penguins because my son is fascinated with the wobbly creatures.

Central Park, New York City

Red Pandas. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Central Park, New York City

Photos by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Always one for a scramble, a steep set of rocks, a mini-hill if you will, amidst the flat park, is met by delight by most kids, and well, grown-ups. Did you know bouldering is a thing in Central Park? Other activities in the park include the usual vendors, the artists, the bubble-makers, the music-makers, the roller-skaters, and the dog-walkers.

Central Park, New York City

Street performance in progress. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Then there was a bunch of street-performers who made a big hue and cry over a long jump. People gathered around, clapped, cheered, waited, got shoved into a line, willingly became the butt of many a wisecrack, and basically wasted a lot of time for a mediocre performance. And yes, they parted with their money as well. When I was there, there were people from Portugal, Wisconsin, and India, to name a few. If I were you, I would walk right past the unnecessary fanfare.

Central Park, New York City.

Central Park. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Not a fan of the horse-drawn carriages, we opted to walk back to the station, the Grand Central Terminal. As the 1913 brochure stated, it is “a place where one delights to loiter, admiring its beauty and symmetrical lines — a poem in stone.” The then chief engineer of New York Central Railroad, William J. Wilgus, came up with the daring idea of demolishing the existing station with its steam engines and replacing it with a monumental structure and electric trains.

I saw many photographers pointing their cameras upwards, trying to capture the artwork spread across the station’s ceiling. Try as I may, I couldn’t do justice to the concave ceiling with its constellations of 2500 stars and the precise shade of blue , as conceived by the French artist, Paul Helleu. Also, we were famished from all the walking.

Grand Central Terminal, New York City

Photos by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Last summer Vanderbilt Hall got a makeover. Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer, a proponent of New Nordic Cuisine, transformed the former waiting area into a quiet and cozy food hall. It’s a corner inside the station where the bustle comes to a screeching halt. In the glow of chandeliers, pugs loll underneath chairs, old friends greet each other, wine glasses are set down, and smorrebrods (open-faced sandwiches) are devoured. We sat down to salmon and cured meats on dark, nutty, tender rye. Although the grain bar looked appetizing, we opted for dough and air, with a glass of chardonnay, and a can of Danish beer.

Grand Central Terminal. Great Northern Food Hall.

Great Northern Food Hall. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Every big city in the world has classical architecture, highly celebrated cuisine, art, commerce, towering buildings, throbbing streets, and diverse people. As does New York. Yet, it is a city unlike any other. When you are on its streets, you can’t drift aimlessly like in some archaic European city. You are on the Manhattan grid, the first of its kind, established in 1811. Monolithic and navigation-friendly, love it or hate it, it’s the rectangular blocks of streets that prod people with a sense of direction and purpose.

And what is life, devoid of either.

EverWonder Children’s Museum in Newtown, CT

EverWonder Children's Museum

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

There are children’s museums that are seemingly endless and packed with activities from corner to corner. You rush from exhibit to exhibit, often jostling alongside a sizable crowd. They are pretty good for days you feel energetic and ready to take on anything life throws at you. Then there are children’s museums that have a laid-back vibe, where your kid can tinker with Legos for as long as he likes, while you catch up on your reading, and let’s be real, your IG feed as well.

EverWonder in Newtown, Connecticut is one such little museum which lets you unwind while your kids explore. They have a dancing wall, a three-wheeled racer track (a great way to learn about friction), a swinging art harmonograph, two tornado tubes,  a ramp and track room, and an art room, amongst other things. The staff is unhurried and friendly, often stopping to discuss the intricacies of building a Lego parking garage with the kids. They will even regale you with the dietary needs of the resident snake, Luna, if your five year old so asks.

EverWonder Children's Museum in Newtown CT

Photos by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Speaking of diets, they have a snack room with a vending machine. You could bring your own snack and eat in there. The room’s nut-free which is a huge relief for parents of kids with allergies. It’s a museum that’s more often than not frequented by locals and next-towners such as us so an elaborate cafeteria is not really a necessary feature.

Families with toddlers will appreciate the five and under area. It even has a reading room filled with books. For older kids interested in animation, moviemaking, game design and computer programming, there are ongoing workshops. Just call and ask. For those of us looking for summer programs, they have an array of offerings. As of now, Mad Science Week and Space Week seem to be getting all the votes in our house.

Happy Snow Day!

Snow Day in Connecticut

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Doodle Makes Scheduling A Breeze

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I am sure there has been days when you have tried to schedule a dinner with a group of friends, only to have been left with a stream of group texts and no dates. Everyone is busy. We get it. Ninja classes, soccer meets, work, kids, dentists, deadlines, and what not.

That’s when Doodle comes in. It’s easy to set up and you don’t even have to download the app. You can tick on your favored dates from the comfort of your phone. Save it. And be done with it. The last step is choosing the date with the most ticks.

My friends and I tried it this week and in a matter of hours, we had a date.

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Desserts Done Right

Vegan Desserts. Chocolate Cake. Carrot Cake. Orange Slices with Chocolate Shavings.

Top: Vegan Chocolate Cake. Bottom left: Orange Slices with Chocolate Shavings. Bottom right: Carrot Cake. Photos by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Never much of a baker, I always kept my distance from measuring cups and hand-mixers. Until recently, when I realized that as parent to a 5 year old with food allergies, my best bet is homemade. So you have a one-bowl vegan chocolate cake from the Minimalist Baker at the top.

To the right is a dessert that is more up my alley. Simple, fresh and oh-so-pretty. Slice up oranges, sprinkle dark chocolate shavings, maybe a pinch of sea-salt, and be done with it.

And finally, we have a vegan carrot cake. It’s nothing if not labor-intensive but the end result more than makes up for it. Plus, it is really low on the guilt factor as you are basically eating veggies for dessert, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Pic(k) of the Week – Colors of New York

Lake Placid, NY. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

If you have time to scroll through your Facebook feed and shake your head in disbelief, you have time to read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. And even if you don’t have time for social media and have your plate full with other pressing matters, read this book, I urge you. Unless, like millions of people before me, you have already read it.

For a book about a brilliant young neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer, it dwells less on death and more on life. The meaning of life, in all its fragility and complexity. Many before him have struggled with the concept, but few have been more eloquent. Apart from graduating cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine in 2007, he also has a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature, a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University, and a M.Phil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from the University of Cambridge. In the limited time allotted to him, he even received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.

On ambition, this is what he had to say – “Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after the wind, indeed.”

On the power of language – “I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion.”

There are many passages in the book that stand out, many poignant lines, and a rare insight into the world of neurosurgery. I leave you with a few more lines from his book, hoping it will ease your daily strife.

Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes.

Super Bowl Ads 2017

An advertising background has its own set of prejudices. One can never enjoy a commercial without getting into the technicalities. So this year, I decided to enjoy the Super Bowl commercials for what they are – branded entertainment. At rates approaching 5 million dollars per 30 sec spot, they better be sufficiently amusing, and at the same time, work some magic for the brand itself.

After all, this is one time of the year when commercials are not skipped. They are watched, and rated. They are deemed the best, and the absolute worst. The halftime show gets a slice of the pie as well. Lady Gaga’s acrobatic performance grabbed many a headline. She was fabulous, wasn’t she?

But do the ads really translate into sales? Actually, they don’t. Especially for established brands like Pepsi and Budweiser. For them, it’s all about maintaining presence and status quo. Surveys have shown that between 80 to 90 percent of Super Bowl ads fail to boost purchase. But as we marketers know, it’s not always about immediate sales, is it?

It’s much more than that. If you want instant gratification, go do a BOGO. Super Bowl commercials are in here for the long haul.

These days, social media adds a continuity factor to the TV spots. You can interact with the brand socially long after the game is over. Super Bowl spots help create a buzz around new movies, resulting in a substantial spike in ticket sales. And as for new companies and products, a 30 sec in the big game can translate into brand awareness, and often, actual sales. Go Daddy and Wix both benefitted in previous years. A slice of the Super Bowl pie grants a certain prestige to newbies, which in turn consolidates their brand share.

Coming on the heels of a tumultuous political season, the 2017 commercials covered the usual array of sentiments and celebrities, ranging from the emotional to the bizarre. The one spot that struck a chord with me was Coca Cola, and it wasn’t even new. The soda company, always a bit of a trend-setter, decided to air their 2014 reel.

For once, I am not going to think of the endless storyboards, language checks, singers, actors, extras, props, clashing schedules, typos, mispronunciations and subsequent corrections, edits, voice recordings, post production madness, or the perfect length and position of the tagline. I am going to sit back and enjoy the rendition.

Did someone say that the ad features voices singing “America the Beautiful” in nine languages? Gulp.

Pic(k) of the Week – Williamstown, MA

Nobody does fall color better than New England. A throwback to days filled with more color and warmth.

New England Autumn

Williamstown, MA. Photo by Pinaki Chakraborty. All rights reserved ©

Curious George and Other Books

Photos by Esha Samajpati © All rights reserved

Not too long ago, I volunteered at a Scholastic Book Fair in my son’s school. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed that morning, browsing through classics and newbies alike. In class, they are reading Molly Lou Melon, a delightful story about a short and clumsy young girl with buck teeth, and “a voice that sounds like a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor.”

I have often written about books in this space but it’s been a while since I have discussed children’s books. This was three years ago. Well, we have moved on from board books to Curious George to Space Books and right now, we are knee-deep into Tintin and Calvin and Hobbes.

While Tintin, in the midst of his escapades, is imparting geographical and cultural knowledge, Calvin is holding up a mirror. My five-year-old finds the adventures of a mischievous six-year-old immensely funny. He thinks “yogurt brain” is hilarious. He doesn’t get the deep stuff. And for now, he doesn’t need to. One day, in the not so distant future, he is going to re-read the comic. That’s when he is going to see how the same words can morph into different ideas. The author, the oft-quoted reclusive genius, Bill Watterson, had a way of bringing to life the simplest of emotions and the deepest of thoughts with a few strokes of his pen.

Not one to get sentimental about baby blankets and toys, I get misty-eyed when I stumble upon a tattered board book now and then. Remember the well-mannered Little Blue Truck? Then I look at Curious George, a favorite throughout the preschool years, who has now been replaced by a philosophical, trouble-maker of a tiger, Hobbes.

George’s backstory intrigues me. Hans and Margret Rey escaped Nazi-occupied Paris, and came to the United States in the forties. With them, they had their scant belongings, and a manuscript (with sketches) about a curious little monkey named Fifi. Upon publication, Houghton-Mifflin, the Boston based company, gave Fifi his new name, Curious George.

After books, George followed the usual animated route of Television (PBS), movies, and now he is also on Hulu. Then we have the online games, the apps, the pillows and the cups. A whole merchandising extravaganza. If you wanted to throw a Curious George birthday party, you could do so with as much homogeneity as you want. More didactic and less cheeky than Book George, it is Cartoon George who is really popular among preschoolers.

After going through a couple of Calvin and Hobbes, my son asked me “When can I watch the show?” He was surprised to hear that Calvin exists only on paper. Sometimes it’s good to have art in their original form, as meant by the artists.

At other times, there is nothing wrong with sitting down with a bowl of popcorn, watching the capers of a smart and curious monkey, who can entertain and educate through fun-filled stories. George does myriad experiments with colors, sounds, shapes and numbers. He teaches us about bugs, fishes, plants and animals. At one point he even went to Mars. But the thing he does best is make functioning objects out of day-to-day items, a DIY periscope and a toy car-wash for instance.

The animated version of George is more diverse, both in terms of gender and race, a sign of the times. The books are just stepping stones to a bigger wider world of enjoyment and learning. I will be amiss if I say I don’t miss the little monkey now that we have moved on. And I am really glad that this country welcomed the Reys, without whom we wouldn’t have Curious George, now an American classic.