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.

Technology Today

    In an attempt to spice up an otherwise dull, gray Wednesday, here’s a few interesting links from around the world, mostly to do with emerging technology trends.

  1. Vine has been relaunched as Vine Camera, an app that will let you publish your six-second videos directly on Twitter.
  2. Expedia’s new VR film transports you to a Norwegian village. Travel meets advertising in this innovative spot, which can only be accessed via Chrome and Firefox. Wish they had included Safari.
  3. Some of the snazzier IoT products that made their debut in CES 2017.
  4. Remember Corning in New York? Now check out their Gorilla Glass and why the 21st Century may as well be the Glass Age.

Note Kitchen and Bar

Note Kitchen and Bar

Photos by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Off Interstate 84, is the town of Bethel, one of those New England towns where everyone knows everyone else. Its streets are lined with independently-owned toy and book shops, quirky coffee places, a drive-in (yes, you heard that right), a pizza place, locally-owned cinema specializing in indie films, a diner or two, and a handful of fine restaurants. One such new entry is Note Kitchen and Bar, housed in a renovated 1850s home. And guess what, it’s not just adding to the town’s culinary scene. It also does music. Live music.

We went there for lunch during the holidays, as the red and green sprinkles rimming the edge of my glass will tell you. Note does artisan cocktails, craft beer and wine pairings. As one who has tasted their espresso martini, I can tell you that the martini alone is reason enough to pay them a visit. How can you go wrong with coffee liqueur and vodka, you say. Well, you can, and often, the consistency is not where you want it to be. Having tried my favorite combo in many places, I can tell you that none have come close to the perfection that was at Note.

A twist on the tried and tested chicken wings, their cauliflower wings with plum ginger sauce was divine. As were the chorizo clams and creamy goat cheese risotto. Not every place can get seafood right. But Note’s clams were steamed superbly in an ale sauce with chorizo, caramelized onions, roasted corn, tomatoes, and hot cherry peppers. To provide a finishing touch to this hearty, aromatic dish, seasoned fries were called to duty. And they did the job pretty well. Rounding off the dish and adding the much needed crunch.

Their ingredients are local of course, as is the music, that showcases both the classic and the contemporary. The line up for the next few days include Gary Bertz, Phoenix TreeDan Zlotnik and Joe Coscina. Drop by if you are in the neighborhood. Note Kitchen & Bar is at 227 Greenwood Ave, Bethel.

Happy New Year!

Photos by Esha Samajpati and Pinaki Chakraborty. All rights reserved ©

Without delving into the past, and feeling sorry for the mess that was 2016, I am going to start this year on a happy note. Above are nine of my “most liked” pics from Instagram. I wish they had included the oysters and lighthouses from our summer trip to Long Island. Other than that one missing bit, it’s stellar.

Wishing all my fellow bloggers and readers, a New Year filled with travel, friends, family and laughter.

Poem of the Week – On Children

On Children
by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Technology Tidbit

After a lot of hemming and hawing, I have switched to ebooks. I am reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and although my iPad says I have read just 13% of the book, I know it won’t take me long to reach 100%. The story is pretty good.

As someone who collected bookmarks, I never thought that I could read a book and not need those collectibles. As a kid, I had one with Goofy’s head sticking out of the top. It was my favorite. Well, ebooks remember where you left so no need for that strip of paper, a paper which often had fun quotes and jokes on them. It’s all very disconcerting and wonderful at the same time.

As technology is the future, I have decided to write about emerging trends in this space on a regular basis. For example, this Amazon Go. Isn’t it awesome? Yes it is. If you leave out the implementation hiccups and job loss. From a purely technological standpoint, it is pretty cool.

Also on some level, it’s somewhat intrusive. So, does Amazon now know that it took me fifteen minutes to decide on a packet of chips? Will I now be seeing ads for self-help books like “How to make Best Use of your Time.” I made up the title just now and hopefully there’s no book by that name. #TooLazyToGoogle

We already know that when it comes to Facebook and Google, we are not the customers. We are the products. They need to know my likes and dislikes to help target appropriate ads at me. That’s why they are so nice and free. They are like the friend who always wants to know more about you, every excruciatingly boring detail. They seldom say anything about themselves. If you have a friend like that, please get a restraining order. That’s the definition of a stalker, not a friend.

We humans love to talk about ourselves. That’s why the most common dating advice is listen. And when we talk, the internet listens. Anyway, I digress. Back to this technological breakthrough, this modern marvel, this Amazon Go. Their ads use words like computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning. We see people scanning, buying, contemplating, bagging, and walking out. So fast, so devoid of human interaction, and a bit too smug if you ask me. I am not sure how quickly this will catch on, or even if it will at all. The concept is advanced and neat, and I thought, worth sharing.

Of course, we already have self-checkout in various stores, but given the time it takes me to scan and bag, I opt for that lane only when I have a few items. And a bad mood.

With a cartload of groceries and an okay mood, you will see me chatting with the cashier. I like the small talk. I also like the stickers. Of course, I get those only when shopping with my son. Nothing for my shopping acumen or my patience. But lollipops and stickers for the kid who whined at every step. Such is life. #AdultingisHard

‘Tis the Season to Chill

Photos by Esha Samajpati © All rights reserved

Growing up in Calcutta (ok fine, Kolkata), I was exposed to celebrations of various countries and communities, and Christmas was a big part of it. I will be damned if any kid will let go of a festival which involves stockings full of presents, cake and pudding, and best of all, a holiday.

India is home to Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, not just Hindus so we get to do a little bit of everything. And if you come from a city and home like mine, nobody is going to cut, sort, and label your holidays by religion. It is true that Kolkata pulls out all the stops for Durga Puja. During those five days, if you look at the unplanned, messy metropolis from high above, all you will see are bright lights. Every corner is lit, every neighborhood is glowing. But that doesn’t mean it forgets to dress up for other occasions.

Bengalis, the native people of Kolkata, are by nature a fun-loving, chilled out sort. If you are having a party, religious or not, count us in. That seems to be the motto. Brisket or ham, Hanukkah or Christmas, it’s all good.

Remember the Starbucks cup uproar of last year? If you have been living under a rock, or maybe have found a way to eliminate unnecessary news from flooding your feed, please google “starbucks christmas cups 2015”. It’s something I will never understand. Neither will I feel bad if my kid chooses a Christmas tree instead of a snowman for his winter craft project. Believe me, it has happened. Feathers were ruffled and projects have been reassigned.

The twinkling lights we used for Diwali can double up for Christmas, right? In our house, it does. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have so many divisions. We would have a few year round holidays for getting together and eating and drinking. I guess that is how most traditions started off, and then became contentious, a game of yours and mine.

Apart from the social aspect, when you buy a box of freshly-minted diyas for Diwali, a fancy wreath for the holidays, and some candles for Hanukkah, it all helps the economy. So these traditions were designed to help us, not divide us.

The end of the year is here. Long weekends are around the corner. People are shopping and giving and sharing (hopefully). Main streets are decked up. As are many houses. People are traveling to see family and friends. A jolly old man is supposed to leave presents under the tree. Parties are happening.

Where I come from, ’tis the season to chill.