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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, March 31, 2013

I spy

Is it ever a good idea to snoop on your children?

It is a scary time to be the parent of teenager. You don’t just have to cope with the ready availability of drinks and drugs, though that is hard enough. With the virtual mainstreaming of porn (available to anyone at the click of a mouse) sex is also a danger zone. Sexting, or sending sexually explicit pictures via phone texts, is rampant among the teenage population. Peer pressure forces kids to become sexual players long before they are ready for sex at an emotional level.  Sexual predators lurk in chat rooms and social media sites to prey on the young and the vulnerable. And the real world is scarcely safer, with reports of rapes and molestations coming in every day.

Combine this with the natural inclination of all kids to turn into monosyllabic creatures of mystery as soon as they hit puberty and you have a huge problem. Just when your children seem to be most vulnerable, their world is closed to you. And the only way to get even a glimpse is (not to put too fine a point on it) by snooping.

The good news is that spying on your kids has never been easier. You can use the GPS on their mobiles to track their whereabouts throughout the day. There are apps that will allow you to monitor their on-line activity – which sites they visited, what software they downloaded, etc – without their being any the wiser. And you can lurk in the corners to check out what they are posting on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (or get someone else to do the lurking for you).

But just because something is easy, should you do it? And what will you do with the information you glean? There is no way you can use it without admitting that you have been spying. And once you admit that, what will be the repercussions on your relationship with your kids? Will they ever forgive you for invading their privacy? Will they ever trust you again, given that trust goes both ways? What if they rebel against this helicopter parenting and become even more secretive than before? Given their competitive advantage in matters of technology, this is one battle you may never win.

Yet, there is no denying that our children are vulnerable on the Net. Cyber-bullying is rampant, and is sometimes so ferocious that it leads kids to kill themselves. Girls as young as 13 are pressured into sending ‘sexy’ pictures of themselves to their boyfriends; who then circulate them among their friends when the ‘relationship’ ends. And you only have to read reports about the Steubenville rape to see how Instagram, Twitter and other social networks are used to humiliate and shame.

So, when it comes right down to it, would you spy on your teenager? And does it ever turn out well?

Well, the jury is out on that one. I know parents who predicate their relationship with their teenage kids on trust and allow them their space. They respect the boundaries their kids put up and their children respond by being open and sharing their lives with them. But this hands-off attitude doesn’t work for everyone – and may even be downright dangerous for some.

On the other extreme, there are parents who believe that knowledge is power and maintain a constant surveillance on their kids. And while their kids may stay safe as a consequence, their relationship with their children does not exactly flourish. The kids resent the constant interference; and the implication that they are not to be trusted.

So what is a parent to do? It’s a tough one. You can’t really abdicate all responsibility for keeping your kids safe on the grounds that they are entitled to their privacy. On the other hand, you don’t want to be so intrusive that they shut themselves off from you forever. It is a fine line that separates caring from smothering; and parents will find themselves on the wrong side of it one time or another.

But the perils of prying work both ways. In one of my favourite episodes of Modern Family, Claire Dunphy joins Facebook and badgers her two teenage daughters into accepting her friend request in the hope of keeping tabs on their lives. But the tables are turned when an embarrassing photo of Claire – in her wild college days – is posted on Facebook by one of her old friends. It is Claire who is left red-faced as she tries (and fails) to delete the image. 

There is a lesson for us all there. Just as there is some stuff you don’t want your kids to know about you, there is some stuff that your kids don’t want to share with you. It’s all a part of growing up, becoming their own person, inhabiting their own world. And whether it is real life or the virtual world, you have to learn to let go.

That said, I have to admit that spying by parents can teach kids a valuable lesson: that nothing you post on the Internet, no matter how well you monitor your privacy settings, is ever private. Each photo, Facebook post or tweet will live on forever in the ether. The only way to keep things really private is to keep them off the Net. But to delight of spying parents everywhere, that’s one thing Generation Next seems incapable of doing.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Comfort zones

We all have our own, whether it is on the snugly sofa at home or between the pages of a favourite book...

As I grow older, I find myself turning into a creature of habit. I have the same breakfast no matter where in the world I am. I wear the same perfume, buying a new bottle when the old one looks like it will soon run empty. I shop at the same stores; I buy the same labels. I read the same authors, waiting impatiently for their next book to be out. I eat out at the same restaurants time and again; hell, I even order the same dishes.

I guess you could say that I seek comfort in the familiar. It could be the Greek salad at my favourite cafe, a staple of many lunch-times, with the sharp tang of onions off-setting the soothing creaminess of feta cheese. It could be the dog-eared copy of a favourite book, where the plot springs no surprises, the characters are like old friends, and the dialogues so familiar that I know the best lines by heart. It could the saggy old couch at home, that has long-since moulded itself to my contours. It could be re-runs of a favourite sitcom to rewind after a long day (though Friends has been replaced by Modern Family in my household).

In some ways, of course, this is a basic human instinct. From the time we are born, we seek out our comfort zone amid a forbidding, unfamiliar world. We first find it at our mothers’ breasts, her smell and touch providing us with a sense of security and well-being. As infants, we move on to being secure in the environs of our home, which is why being sent off to school is such a traumatic transition. And no matter how much we complain about school as we struggle with our homework, it is a wrench to leave the comfort zone it represents to move into college.

Comfort zones keep us feeling safe and secure. But sometimes they also make us fearful and timid, afraid of venturing forth from our shells to explore what the world has to offer.

We are afraid to leave jobs that we loath because there is a certain comfort factor in the familiarity they represent (rather the devil we know, we tell ourselves dourly). We are reluctant to end bad relationships because we fear being alone more than we hate being lonely. We stay in unhappy marriages because it is too scary to even contemplate the alternative.

Sometimes our reliance on comfort zones means that we miss out on a lot of what the world has to offer. I have friends who head back to the same holiday spot every summer with their kids, even though the world is littered with better beaches, more stunning mountains, and far more exciting cities. But they like the fact that they can walk around the streets without getting lost; that the waiters in the neighbourhood bistros know their kids by name and dote on them; that there is a certain familiarity to the surroundings.

I know how they feel. There was a phase in my life when I used to head to London every time I got some time off. I loved the idea of going back to familiar haunts: the perfume department at Liberty; the shoe section at Harvey Nichols; the lingerie section of Marks and Spencer. Every trip to London had the same rituals. A stop at Nicky Clarke to get a ruinously expensive haircut; a visit to a theatre to watch a play; a walk through Hyde Park; window-shopping on Bond Street; an orgy of book-buying at Waterstones.

That phase is now over. My bi-annual pilgrimage to my spiritual home, London, has been junked as I explore uncharted territory on my holidays. And thanks to my new-found taste for adventure – and my decision to venture out of my comfort zones – I have discovered the delights that the world has to offer. I have tracked lions in the African jungle; marvelled at the wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef of Australia; trekked up the heights of Machhu Pichu; taken a helicopter ride to a live volcano in New Zealand; bathed in the waters of a spewing geyser in Iceland. Okay, I’ll stop showing off now.

But my point is that however much we want to stay within the safety of our comfort zones, sometimes it makes sense to venture outside and see what else is out there.  It could be the small stuff: signing up for a salsa class instead of pounding away on the treadmill. Or it could be the big one: giving up on a dead-end relationship or a soul-sapping job in the hope of starting something new. Either way, sometimes it makes sense to leave the security of a comfort zone for the excitement of a new start. You really should try it sometimes.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

What on earth?

Here's the next update in the series labelled: the abiding mysteries of life...

Yes, I know, I have mentioned these before: those abiding mysteries of life that keep me awake at night. But you know what, I wasn't quite done. So, here's the next edition of what threatens to become a recurring series (don't say you weren't warned!)

* Why is it that the moment an 'expert commentator' begins praising a batsmen at the crease as he nears a milestone (50, a century, 10,000 runs in Test cricket), the batsman in question gets out? I'm pretty sure you've noticed this as well. In fact, so well-documented is this phenomenon that it even has a name: 'commentator's curse'. But nobody seems able to explain why this happens. The players on the crease certainly can't hear what's going on in the commentary box. And yet, no sooner have the encomiums started flowing than the batsman starts his trudge back to the pavilion.

* Why do shower stalls in hotels only have shampoo bottles placed inside while the bath gel is kept next to the bathtub? Do hoteliers really believe that people first bathe in the tub and then tip-toe across on soapy feet to the shower stall to wash their hair? Did I hear a resounding no? Okay, then, how about you place a shampoo bottle and a bath gel at each location. At the prices you charge you can certainly afford it.

* How on earth does Sridevi look the way she does? The actress, who turns 50 this year, looks younger (not to mention considerably thinner) than she did during her heyday as the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema. Gone are the chubby cheeks and the thunder thighs. Instead we have a slim, svelte woman with miraculously-smooth skin with nary a frown-line in sight. The actress insists that it's all down to careful eating and regular exercise. I'm sure she is right but I have to say that her appearance in English Vinglish reminded me of that old joke. How can you tell the young actresses apart from the old ones in Hollywood? The young ones have wrinkles.

* And while we are talking about 50-ish women who look better with every decade, what is up with Nigella Lawson? If she does indeed eat all the food she twit-pics every day, where do all the calories go? Surely, they can't all be burnt away by her daily treadmill-pounding (wearing only a bra – no, I am not making this up; we are indebted to Lawson herself for this little nugget of information)? So why don’t all those doughnuts and fry-ups settle around her waist?

* Why is it that the moment you find a perfume that is just you, or even a lipstick that is perfect for your skin tone, the manufacturers decide to discontinue the line? Is this part of some giant conspiracy by cosmetics companies to keep us fickle and uncommitted so that they can benefit from our 'experimentation'?

* Why does the traffic lane you choose always move the slowest? Ditto, queues at banks, immigration counters at airports, and the like. And you can be sure that if you decide to ditch the line moving at a snail-like pace for the one that is galloping on ahead, the two will switch personas as soon as you switch sides.

* And while we are on traffic, why is it that you always get a red light at every intersection when you are running late? On the days when you have all the time in the world, the lights stay resolutely green, in a classic display of contrariness. If this is something that happens to you as well, here's a little trick that works like a charm for me. On days that I want to speed through, I leave home without my kajal on, telling myself that I will apply it at the first red light. And guess what? The lights stay green throughout my route.

* Why do people follow you on Twitter only to berate you for what you tweet? Do they not realise that they can just click on 'unfollow' and never have to hear from you again? And that this is a far less stressful (both for them and you) option than letting loose with a volley of insults and verbal abuse for having failed/annoyed/angered them? It really is a bit like calling up someone you don't know on the phone only to complain that you don't like the sound of their voice.

* Why does the Snickers bar keep shouting 'Eat me' whenever you open the fridge? And is there any way to shut it up?

* Why are the mirrors in the changing rooms of all clothing stores so unflattering? Not to mention the nasty neon lighting that makes everyone look even more pasty-faced than usual. Do store owners and managers not realise that they would move more merchandise if buyers could look at themselves in flattering light in a mirror that didn't make their ass look big in everything? (Or is that down to the Snickers bar?)

* Why is it that the day you can sleep in late is when you wake up at the crack of dawn (and then can't fall asleep again no matter how hard you try)? And on the days when it is imperative that you get up early, you can barely drag yourself out of bed? Is this your body clock’s idea of a joke? And when will it understand that we are not amused?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Desk vs couch

As Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer orders her employees back into the office, it’s time to ask if working from home really works

I am writing this column from my living-room sofa, my feet perched on the ottoman opposite. In the next room, I can hear the electrician fixing the lights that fused this morning. Delicious cooking smells are wafting from the kitchen. And the TV is on in the den, the sound muted, so that I can pop in once in a while and check on the score.

Marissa Mayer would so not be impressed.

In case you have missed all the hoo-haa, Mayer, the newly-minted Yahoo CEO created a bit of a storm when she sent out a memo that employees could no longer work from home but had to clock in at their offices. Cue, much outrage and indignation, not just from Yahoo employees – which was understandable given that they would now have to get out of their pyjamas and actually brush their hair before settling down before their computer screens – but from such entrepreneurs as Sir Richard Branson who criticised Mayer’s directive, saying it seemed a ‘backward step’ in an age where remote working is easier and more effective than ever. Branson, who prides himself on never having worked out of an office, said, “Working life isn’t 9-5 any more. The world is connected. Companies that do not embrace this are missing a trick.”

In Mayer’s defence, she issued the memo only after a diligent check of the Yahoo’s VPN (Virtual Private Network) system that revealed that some employees who worked from home were not logging in as much as they should have. But instead of laying off the slackers, she issued an one-solution-fits-all diktat, asking Yahoo’s workforce to either punch in or punch out forever.

Mayer has since been criticised for letting down the sisterhood, because working flexible hours at home is the best-case solution for mothers of young kids. And the betrayal seems even harder to bear because Mayer had seemed like such a poster child for the ‘women can have it all’ school of thought. Hired as Yahoo CEO when she was six months pregnant, she came back to work when her baby was just two weeks old; a bit of a blow to women who have campaigned long and hard for adequate maternity leave. It didn’t help that – unlike other Yahoo working moms who will have to drop their kids off at day care – Mayer had a nursery built for her infant son right next to her office at her own expense. If only every woman could be so lucky...not to mention, rich.

But of course, it’s not just women (or women with children) who prefer working out of the home. Given a choice many men would like to do that as well. And the benefits – no matter what your sex – are obvious. You save on commuting time; you don’t spend on transport; you can work flexible hours. That said, you do miss out on some things that only a work environment can provide. Bouncing ideas off colleagues; working in a creative environment; benefitting from a professional workspace free of distractions.

So, what is better? Working out of home? Or putting in long hours in an office? Having done both at different times in my life, I have decided that there’s no golden rule that works for everyone.

I really don’t buy the argument that people who work out of home are easily distracted – by kids running around, day-time television, the thought of fixing a quick snack – and indulge in too much time-wasting. I have seen enough desk-slaves who spend an obscene amount of time playing Solitaire or surfing the Net at the office to buy that. The bottom-line is: if you are the kind of person who likes to faff around and waste time, you will do that, whether you are ensconced on your sofa or behind an office desk. On the other hand, if you are motivated and driven, you will concentrate on your job, no matter where you are.

And who can deny that it is easier to concentrate behind closed doors at home rather than in a noisy office. As someone who learnt to write and edit in a noisy, open-plan newsroom, which was characterised by much yelling and screaming as deadlines drew nearer, it is an unaccountable luxury to be able to work in quiet solitude where you can actually hear yourself think. So yes, working alone does make sense when you are writing or doing something vaguely creative.

But that is not necessarily the case when you are in a marketing or sales job when you need to brainstorm with other members of your team, push one another to think harder, and get inspired by what the other person says. Even such creative fields as advertising and publishing benefit from a work force that has some face-time with one another, and no amount of tele-conferencing and Skype can be a good substitute. As British Vogue editor Alexandra Schulman, who believes in ‘the collective creativity of an office’, says, “The daily download of chatter within the office feeds into what we produce in an incalculable way. Having half the staff sitting at home, fiddling around on a search engine from the kitchen or pasting up mood boards from the sofa does not replicate that.”

Or, as they would say at Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo, “Back to the water cooler, everyone!”

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sorry seems to be the hardest word...

If David Cameron finds the Jallianwala Bagh massacre ‘deeply shameful’, why stop short of a full apology?

There are many ways in which we use the words, ‘I am sorry’ in our everyday lives. We say ‘I am sorry’ when we hear that a friend has lost a parent, a rather inadequate way to express our sympathy but most commonly used nonetheless. ‘I am sorry’ trips off our tongues when we can’t make it to a cousin’s birthday party, and indicates that we would have loved to come if it had been at all possible. ‘I am sorry’ is the standard response when we break the neighbour’s flower vase or window pane, to express contrition for something that is fairly and squarely our fault, and to indicate that we are ready to make reparation for the loss.

And yet, as the words of the song go, sorry ‘seems to be the hardest word’ when an apology is called for the most. It is when we have hurt someone very deeply that we find it most difficult to summon up words of remorse. It is when our actions have caused irreparable damage that contrition is often the hardest to express. It is when the sin is unforgiveable that forgiveness is so hard to ask for. (Just ask Narendra Modi.)

Over the last week or so, the media have been full of reports of David Cameron and the apology that never was. Should the British Prime Minister have apologised for the British imperial government’s decision to open fire on peaceful protestors at Jallianwala Bagh, which resulted in the death of 379 people while more than a thousand were injured? Yes, the incident occurred in 1919, decades before Cameron took office, but as a representative of Britain did it behove him to say sorry for what had been done in the name of the British people?

As it turned out, Cameron steered clear of the ‘s’ word. Instead he wrote in the visitor’s book, “This was a deeply shameful event in British history – one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the the time as ‘monstrous’. We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.”

Even if you gloss over the fact that it is hardly politic to invoke Winston Churchill – who was adamantly opposed to granting India independence and who famously referred to Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’ – at the site of one of the greatest atrocities perpetrated by colonial Britain, Cameron’s comment falls well short of a full-throated expression of regret. But the Prime Minister remains convinced that this was the right thing to do.

“In my view,” he said, “we are dealing with something that happened a good 40 years before I was born...So, I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that you can apologise for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to learn from the bad and to cherish the good.”

So, is it really necessary, or even helpful, to reach back into history and apologise for wrongs that happened a century or more ago. Well, the Americans, great proponents of what they term ‘closure’, certainly think so. Which is why in 2009, the US Senate passed a resolution apologising for slavery. So, if US representatives can apologise for the collective guilt that all White Americans bear for the enslavement of the Blacks, then why can’t the British government, in the person of the British Prime Minister, apologise for the crimes of colonialism? Even the former German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, went on his knees at a Warsaw memorial to the victims of the Holocaust to express contrition 40 years after the event.

So, even if Cameron could not say ‘I am sorry’ in the sense of ‘I have broken your vase and it is entirely my fault’ why not just say ‘I am sorry’ in the sense of ‘I am sad to hear of the tragic passing of your father and I feel for your loss’? But for some reason, the British Prime Minister, who has apologised for everything from the Hillsborough disaster which left 96 people dead 23 years ago to the killing of a Belfast lawyer, Pat Finucane in 1989, thought that apologising for the deaths of hundreds of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh was a step too far.

As someone who says ‘sorry’ almost reflexively – even when it is patently the other person’s fault – I find that a bit hard to comprehend. After all, nobody asked David Cameron to travel to Amritsar, visit the memorial to the victims, lay a wreath, and write a comment in the visitors book. It was his decision to visit Jallianwala Bagh, to reach into the past and examine wounds that had lain long buried. And when you have gone that far, why stop short of an apology which may actually help heal some of these wounds? When you use words like ‘deeply shameful’, regret is implicit in them. So, why shy away from voicing it?

There is nothing quite as disarming as a heartfelt apology. When someone says ‘I am sorry’ with patent sincerity, it is hard not to forgive, whether it is a spouse, a parent, a child or a nation that is expressing regret. But sadly, Cameron failed to do that. I can only hope he’s sorry now.