Email and Productivity

I love emails as a form of communication. In fact, I prefer emails to any other synchronous form of communication. A discussion on Twitter brought about the topic of email and how to efficiently manage emails. I'm some sort of a productivity pr0n enthusiast. As a chronic procrastinator, I can't help but try and optimize the time periods that I actually get work done in. 

Studies show that multitasking is almost impossible, especially when it comes to responding to emails. Emails are an active distraction from your workflow. Every time you open an email, thinking it requires only a simple response it almost always evolves into this giant essay which brings with it a response that assigns you a bunch of action items—bam! Productivity lost. 

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
— Mark Twain

What Mark Twain probably said in jest is definitely true when it comes to emails that interrupt your workflow.

Over time I've learned some tricks/hacks that help me somewhat efficiently manage my email habit. Some of those are hard to practice—at least personally—but you might find creative ways to implement a version of the rule. In retrospect, they'll seem like commonsense advice, but they're hard to practice simply by virtue of being commonsense advice—email is a two-way communication so all your rules go to hell when the other party does not respect/give way to you comfortably following your rules. Anyway, here are the rules I try to follow to not let emails come in the way of real work.

  • Filter ruthlessly. For better or for worse, all communication at my company is in the form of emails. We have an instant messenger we use. However, that doesn't really get used to handling all communication for several reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. Because emails are the primary form of communication, I receive a ton of them—most of which are not directly relevant to my every day functioning. Besides this, there are email lists I'm subscribed to which provide me with the necessary distraction I need from work. I know this sounds like a paradox but studies show that mindless browsing is actually an indicator of productivity and a happier workplace. This means that filtering emails that are not directly related to me is paramount. Personally, I filter everything except emails that are directly addressed to me. Code Reviews or other approvals that are directly addressed to me go into a different folder which takes precedence over everything else.
  • Do not respond to emails that are not directly addressed to you, calls you out specifically, or is asking a question that only you can answer. This kind of follows from the first point, but I'll give you an example. Early in my career (ok ok, I'm not that experienced yet...) I was super excited about being the person who knew answers to questions. This was the result of me actually not knowing answers to most questions, which meant if I knew an answer I was too eager to jump in and answer it. It basically meant that I was the one picking the low hanging fruits. I'll let you in on a secret—there are SO many low hanging fruits. Most emails contain questions that only require a cursory search but the writer had to send it to an email list with 400 people because that's for some reason easier to do. The moment you stop picking on the low hanging fruits the number of emails you end up responding to reduces significantly. I'll let you in on another secret—the fewer the number of emails you respond to (those that are not specifically addressed to you) the fewerr you'll get assigned random tasks in the middle of the week. 
  • Respond to emails in bulk once or twice a day. This is impossible at certain workplaces where emails are expected to receive instant responses, or if you're low enough on the reporting chain that you cannot afford to miss emails from anyone above you, or if you have colleagues who sometimes send invites for meeting an hour out (why?), or... But if you can get this into your routine or set the expectation that this is how you operate, you've bagged a pretty significant win at workplace productivity. This is a lesson I learned from pmarca and I've strived to incorporate into my life albeit in futility.
  • I'm only hypothesizing but humor me. If you can implement the previous rule or some variant of it—one variant I have been successful in implementing is to never reply to emails instantly, you'll manage to avoid the problem of cached responses. I love the term cached responses. When I first learned of it, it blew my mind and made me go "damn, everything makes more sense now!".  I still catch myself responding to emails because "it's a quick email"—only to spiral into a web of nonsense for several hours—but I try to follow it as much as I can. Cached responses are what you think are quick, immediate answers to questions. The problem with cached responses is that just like a computer's cache, these responses require no computation. Since they require no computation, they're almost always incomplete unless you're verbatim repeating in two different emails or to two different people or worse, the same person. If you're fortunate like I am, most of your colleagues are smart people and you almost never get into a situation where a cached response is appropriate. An implication of this that should frighten you is that almost all the emails that you quickly responded to likely were incomplete responses. So, my advice is, take time to respond to emails. Sleep over them if you have to but don't jump into responding to emails as soon as they arrive at your inbox. As an exception to any rule, there are going to be emails where a quick response or a cached response is perfectly valid so go ahead and shoot shots—please don't let your coworker who sends a morning email about whether or not you would like to grab lunch hanging. Why that's an email in the first place is a topic for another post.

Hapax Legomenon

It is that time of the year in the Pacific Northwest when the day has more hours of sunlight than darkness. It so happens that, around this time of the year I suddenly feel like I have more clarity than I did all year round. Sometime this week, I turned a year older. This is likely because of the illusion of wisdom that comes as a result of turning a year older. But, I credit it to the fact that—for better or for worse—I spend a good number of hours in the first week of May thinking about the learnings and mistakes since the previous May. I also come up with new mistakes to make—or learn from, depending on whether you're the glass half full or half empty kind.

Hapax Legomenon is a Greek phrase which means that (word) which occurs only once—within a context. It is an extension of the Zipfian distribution which in turn is a specific instance of the Power law. Hapax Legomenon is a linguistics term, but I'm going to go ahead and apply it to life. There are infinitely many experiences, a gamut of configurations any given day can take. But I posit that a large number of us share a large number of mundane experiences—going to work, doing that assignment, paying those bills, losing money on that stock. Hapax kicks in rest of the time. There's a small number of us seeking out unique experiences, and if you're one of the fortunate you're going to have experiences nobody else has ever had, and nobody else will.

Low expectations help me easily top the experiences of one year the next. This past year has been nothing short of incredible. As was the year before compared to the year before that. This morning a friend asked me how my birthday went. My response was "Met some friends. Drank some beer. Ate some cake. Can't complain." Aside from summarizing my birthday, it was a succinct summary of how my year was. I met some wonderful people, visited a ton of great places—7 countries in Europe!, got an opportunity to eat and drink some incredible food and drinks, and overall made significant adjustments to my social circle and well-being. Then again, all of these are easy to do one better in. I could meet more people, try more kinds of food and drinks, and of course travel to more places. But the interesting part—and perhaps the most exciting part—is that there are many other dimensions in which I can accumulate and experience new things. So much so that, even if I don't do any better on the things I did this year, it wouldn't feel like a step back when I look back at the end of the year. In fact, next year might bring with it a realization that none of this matters—a phase I'm in for a few months every year—which would result in the null hypothesis; No one experience is different in a statistically significant measure from the others, any observed difference is likely an experimental error. So what's the answer if it is indeed an experimental error? Go live the next year of your life and repeat the experiment. Tweak some values, introduce new variables, go back to the damn whiteboard. Live a little. Like the famous song goes, I'll try anything once.

Writing lessons from Jeff

It's been almost 2 years(!) since I started working here, and if there's one thing I've learned it is the art of writing a convincing narrative. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I've mastered it, but I've gotten good at it to a point where I no longer have to rewrite entire drafts.

As with any good company, the culture of writing narratives flows from the top down. And the practice of writing narratives as opposed to doing bullet point presentations has been around since the beginning. 

Jeff is a compelling writer.  You can see how much thought goes into writing each year's shareholders letter. You can find an archive of them here. The 2018 shareholders letter (pdf) is a lesson on writing clear narratives. It is data driven, speaks to the point, free of drivel, and stands true to the fact that a good document should tell you a story; a story, when read from beginning to end, lays down everything that you need to know, including the conclusions that were drawn, so you can form your own understanding of the conclusions. This is important as opposed to an open-ended document—especially those as critical as an investor letter—which leaves the conclusions to be drawn to the reader's imagination. That's the job of an op-ed, not a narrative that's trying to lay down facts and statistics.

At Amazon, instead of making presentations or giving talks with jotted down notes, we write what are six-page memos. It's not just leadership, even on the engineering side, design documents are six pagers. These memos are very effective for both parties—the writer and the reader. Your first reaction to this is probably that writing a narrative instead of making slides is a more taxing and a process that takes longer. That's true. Writing narratives as opposed to making slides take longer, but that's not inherently a bad thing. Writing a narrative helps me articulate my design well. If I cannot communicate my design via a narrative, it means there are gaps in my understanding/formulation of the same. For the readers, it gives them a coherent understanding of the problem, approach, pros and cons, along with an appendix of material. This helps them to attack the problem with almost as good an understanding of it as the writer—sometimes better, because they come in with some prior knowledge.  In an hour-long meeting, the first fifteen-twenty minutes are spent reading the narrative, and the rest of the time is spent by the stakeholders of the document/design going over the narrative section by section recording feedback/disagreements/changes. This, according to me, is the best way to deconstruct any proposal that one is interested in getting the stakeholders to be thrilled about.

If you ever did a project or had to write a thesis back when you were in school, you likely had to give a talk besides writing a report on the same. Go back to the few days/hours before the talk, when you were making the slides, and compare it with the time it took you to write the actual report. The former would likely seem like a trivial amount of time compared to the latter. This is because writing coherent narratives is hard. Not—only—because there's a lot more to write, but because it inherently puts you in a place where you cannot omit details or be vague about things. This is important because you need to present a complete picture to the reader. Your slideshow could omit details or be purposefully vague about things because you're going to be present to use the slideshow as a talking point. However, when someone is reading your narrative/report/thesis—which is going to live long after you've left the room—they do not expect you to stand around adding context to each unclear assertion or defending each claim. Your document should be doing that. Once your document is complete, it should become independent of the writer.

This is what a six-page narrative accomplishes and forces you to get right. There are certain valuable lessons you learn over time, mainly as a result of writing enough of these narratives and getting feedback on the writing besides feedback on the content itself. I think I've learned a few good lessons while there's plenty more to learn. But the delta between a bad document and a decent document is huge, while what makes a decent document a great document is intricate and the delta is small. To communicate well, you simply have to be a good writer, not a great one. Your design document need not be the next bestseller, but it should not be abysmal. This is because the time the stakeholders spend reading your document is the only chance you have to present a complete picture of what you're proposing. The rest of the meeting as I'd mentioned would revolve around what's been presented rather than what's missing. In other words, your narrative sets the agenda for the meeting. 

Some of the lessons apply generally—not just in engineering or management—and would help you have better conversations even in your personal life. I say so because it has helped me communicate better outside of work as well.

  • Have a data-driven discussion. Every single detail or claim you present in your narrative should be backed by data. You cannot simply say a design or a product or a process would achieve something without providing context on how you arrive at that claim. Being data-driven cuts down the time it takes for your stakeholders to arrive at a point where they trust your claims. For instance, if you say caching the results of an API call would help improve the latencies in your overall system, layout metrics and graphs that show that the uncached API call is actually a bottleneck.
  • As an extension, data-driven thinking helps you avoid the X-Y problem. If your proposal shows—with the help of data—that what you're proposing solves something meaningful, you can then easily convince the stakeholders that you're not solving the wrong problem. In a fast-paced industry, solving the wrong problem at the wrong could prove to be expensive. 
  • As with writing code, while writing documents, do not repeat yourself. It is easy to do so while making a slideshow because nobody's keeping track of what you're speaking. There's no way for your audience to rewind in real time to verify whether you made the same claim—or worse, a contradictory claim—a few minutes back. If you provide your audience with a narrative, this is no longer a problem as your reader can verify whether you're repeating or presenting contradictory views by simply going back to a previous section in the document. It also helps you reaffirm your claims, and avoid making a fool of yourself.
  • Avoid weasel words. Weasel words are in direct contention with a data-driven discussion. An example of such a statement would be "This solution X greatly improves the performance of the system compared to this other solution Y." Great, you've given me no meaningful information. Is the improvement 10% or 10x? Did you purposefully present a terrible solution in Y so you can make X look that much more efficient? What is greatly improves for one stakeholder could be slightly more efficient to another. Give the readers a common ground. Your readers are going to be on different planes when it comes to understanding things. It is your job as the writer to ensure that the planes have as much overlap as possible. Otherwise, the meeting is going to be spent getting your audience on the same page, which should be the job of your narrative. If that happens even after you presented a narrative, it signifies your failure as a writer.
  • Diagrams are important. A picture really does speak a thousand words. Especially while describing a workflow, or a new system, it helps to paint a picture so the reader does not have to imagine it. It is especially important to ensure that you don't let the wide spectrum of imagination across your audience derails your discussion. Feed everything to your audience so they aren't shifting to different planes unless they are actively trying to.
  • Provide an appendix and use it generously. After you've added a passage or a metric or an argument, ask yourself whether it needs to be in the document. I say after because it is hard for you to gauge beforehand whether or not something belongs in a document without actually trying to fit it in the document. This is in line with my previous point. Do not imagine something if you don't have to. Put the passage or the metric or the reference in the document, then decide whether or not it needs to be there.

The writing exercise takes a few months to get good at, but once you're comfortable writing narratives, you retain that skill forever. I often say that this practice is something that'll make me stick with my company for a long time, and I don't say it without reason.

Heart Shaped Box

Thinking about death, especially of someone who I've had the pleasure to interact with, and in some cases grow up even, always leads me to this quote about death by Lemony Snicket.

It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.
— Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

"When did I last speak to this person?" I've had to ask myself this question about half a dozen times in the last couple of months as I bid adieu to a handful of folks, near and dear. Nothing wakes you up to your own finiteness like death that strikes too close to home. I've grown from a person who's very attached to the family into someone who has learnt to accept that over time one chooses the people that matter in the long run, and that most, if not everyone besides immediate family, do not make the cut.

That aside, I've shared and am sharing a journey with people that did and did not make the cut. And that matters. There's always a small story, a tiny shoe, or perhaps a quick high five that can't be replaced. And that vacuum, however infinitesimal, remains.

I know there will be fewer and fewer moments I'll spend thinking about them. There'll come a point where I'll have a final thought about a person and I'll not realise that I'll never think of that person ever again. It will be in a year or in ten, but the day will come. 

After the day has come and gone, there'll remain a portion of my existence—or whatever signifies it—like that box in my grandma's place that nobody knew what was inside of, representing this person whom I never again will spare a thought for.

What's strange is just as sure as someone never knows when they'll die, they'll never know when they'll make the transformation from a memory to a thought to a box on the shelf. Or whether they'll make the cut. I think I'm a story, a memory, to someone.

Perhaps I'm just a box.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There are spoilers ahead. I strongly recommend you to watch the movie before reading this.

It's not always you find yourself watching a movie where the plot is present only to play the role of a pivot around which an immaculate cast can wow you for a hundred minutes. Don't get me wrong, Three Billboards has a compelling plot. However, what's put in front of you as the plot does not advance insomuch as everything around it. The world around the plot changes while it remains the only constant, reminding us why we are in Ebbing, Missouri in the first place.

Missouri, like most other midwestern states, is studded with small sleepy towns which to the world outside may as well not exist. Ebbing is one such sleepy town. The movie begins with Mildred Hayes—played by a fantastic Frances McDormand—buys three billboards outside the town to ask hard questions about a case that remains unsolved after seven months. The case in question is the rape and murder of Angela Hayes, Mildred's young daughter. How the billboards shape the future of the town and the people involved over the next few months is what the movie is about.

Woody Harrelson plays an outstanding Chief Willoughby, a sliver of good, in a town full of cops drunk with power—at least as much a small town cop can be drunk with. The police couldn't find any clues connected to the murder and Mildred wants to know why they aren't working hard to catch the murderer. The billboards become the talk of the town, and they actually get the police to revisit the case because of the all the attention it's getting. However, the Chief dies in the end, the murder remains unsolved and there is a consolation where Dixon—played incredibly by Sam Rockwell—ride to Idaho to feel better about taking some action, though it wouldn't help their cause.

Though the entire movie is a dialogue writer's dream, I enjoyed the evolution of Dixon, from a clueless young cop to a changed man, having been introduced to love and forgiveness. Caleb Landry Jones plays a young man named Red Wilby who at one point gets thrown off a window by Dixon. There is a scene in a hospital room where Dixon is admitted with burn injuries after getting caught in a fire accident. It happens to be the same room where Red is also recovering. With Dixon's face completely covered by bandages, Red approaches him, asks how he is doing, and offers him some orange juice. Dixon, a changed man at that point, starts crying on seeing what he's done to the kid and the kindness the kid's showing. He apologizes and the kid then realizes that it is, in fact, the guy who threw him off a window. This is the moment that won me over and showed for a fact that Dixon will never again be the same. I'd expect the kid to revolt knowing that this is the guy because of whom he's in a hospital badly injured. But Red, even at that moment, asks Dixon to stop crying because the tears would make his burns worse. Dixon responds with "Isn't salt good for your wounds though?" The kid with care and forgiveness in his voice responds with "What do I know? I'm no doctor." and you don't see him for the rest of the movie. For me, this scene was the surest sign that Dixon is going to do good and nothing else in the days to come.

Willoughby, before shooting himself at one point in the movie, leaves letters he's written to the people he cares about. The whole montage of the letter being narrated in Woody Harrelson's voice will haunt you for days. The fact that Martin McDonagh wrote a bunch of small story arcs about people and places, is what probably qualified Three Billboards for all the awards its won—and will win in the future, deservedly so. 

In Red, the story tells us that a little compassion goes a long way. In Dixon, it tells us that you don't stop learning lessons, ever. In Mildred, it tells us that closure is something you should find in a form or manner that suits you and works for you. That it just doesn't happen. 

All in all Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is the kind of movie that perhaps what defines a movie to me—something that introduces you to people, places, and tells their stories and lets you to make of it what you will.

Hashtag Goals

It has been nearly 18 months (72 weeks if you're a new parent) since I started working as a full-time Software Dev. Though this is not my first job ever, this is my first job after graduating. It has been an interesting ride so far and I enjoy coming into work. But as with anything, there are days when I'd rather be doing anything else. My enthusiasm to come into work is usually a function of what project(s) I'm currently working on and more often than not, it is a function of what stage my projects are in.

I've observed myself to be an enthusiastic person in general. I go full throttle on anything I do because, why not? Since I started at work, all my objectives -- both short term and long term -- have circled around work. Last year, I set several annual goals for myself. Among those, the one I considered most important had to do with me doing meaningful contributions at work. Though it is great to have objectives and goals at work, I've since come to realize that it is very important to detach my life's happiness/satisfaction quotient from my happiness/satisfaction quotient I use at work. It is difficult to draw that line, and it sometimes is impossible to create an emotional barrier between work and life. Sometimes there's little I can do to stop a crappy day at work affecting how I feel afterward. There have been times when I've had a terrible Friday at work which ended up ruining the whole weekend. Likewise for personal issues creeping into work. There is only so much I can do to stop a personal issue affect my workday. These usually balance out and a healthy work-life balance brings about that equilibrium. It's something I've learned by experimenting, reading, talking to my colleagues and friends.

What I realize when I look back is I've constantly optimized my life for being more conducive to making progress as fast as I can at work. This is great and has proved useful in aligning my objectives at work to what I desire in life. Progress here doesn't refer to climbing the ladder at work. It relates to simpler things like getting better at writing code or at communicating ideas. There have been weekends where I've obsessed over how I could make this tiny thing at work that will improve my team's systems thereby earning me recognition or accolades or simply a pat on the back from my manager. These have been meaningful metrics to me which I've optimized my days/weeks/months for. But when I look back, I realize I've been chasing local optima all along. Though some of which contribute toward the bigger picture, chasing local optima has left me blind to long term progress in life. Call it quarter-life crisis or what not, I find it difficult to digest the fact that I let existential dread be existential dread and not something I should act upon.

I see people around me who are goal oriented/driven. It is very inspiring and I aspire to be one of them but it doesn't always work for me. I like goals. I like when I achieve them, look back and feel good about it. Yet, I don't seem to be driven by them. I struggled to find out why I was doing well with certain goals while others only received reckless abandon. I started 2017 with a list of I wanted to do before exiting the year. One of which was to visit at least 3 new states in the U.S. A reasonable, fun goal. I set out to look for opportunities to travel and around the Memorial Day weekend I visited Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. I did one better! Another one of my goals were to run a certain number of miles before the end of the year. It saw abysmal results.

Was the reward not enticing enough? Were the goals too ambitious? Was I simply not good? The answers to these questions eluded me.

It was then by happenstance I learnt about what's known in criminology as the Broken Windows Theory. In the 1990s, inspired by James Wilson and George Kelling, the formulators of the theory, Rudy Giuliani, the then newly elected Mayor of New York City started implementing the learnings from it.

The theory goes like this: A broken window signifies neglect. It draws attention from the wrong kind of people. Vandals gather and they tend to break more windows. More broken windows signifies even more neglect. Graffiti starts appearing, drug peddlers start using the place as a rendezvous. What started with a single broken window results in a neighborhood becoming a 'bad neighborhood'. To someone who passes by the place after a significant amount of time, it would seem as if graffiti appeared out of nowhere. It would seem as if drug peddlers and vandals drove people away and claimed the peaceful neighborhood as theirs. Wrong. It all started with a broken window, and the gradual doom spiral goes pretty much unnoticed.

The broken window here is just a metaphor. Rudy Giuliani was hell bent on eliminating broken windows. He made it clear to the NYPD. He made sure there weren't neighborhoods labeled as bad neighborhoods. Graffiti was cleared overnight. Vandals punished. Homeless people were confined to shelters. Litter was not collecting anywhere. Broken windows fixed.

It is possible that you'd have come across a lot of things ruined by a single broken window. More often than not the problem doesn't lie in fixing broken windows. It stems from the first broken window going unnoticed.

Technical debt is a result of a single broken window.

Procrastination is a broken window. That single cheat day? Broken window. You better be sure that there are going to be more.

I've been reading Robert O'Neil's The Operator. (A fantastic book. It starts with what made him become a SEAL, goes into his life as a SEAL, eventually ending with him encountering Osama bin Laden face to face and shooting him down). Almost everything that people who are going through military training learn is about discipline and being orderly. Discipline is the most important lesson one can learn in life, and is perhaps the hardest too. Why do you think there are courtesies in the army? The trimmed mustache, the neatly shaved head. Why do you think the first thing you're asked to do at bootcamp is to learn to make your bed? And do it religiously everyday? It gives a window of opportunity (pun intended) for a broken window to creep in.

I realized me chasing local optima, forgetting the big picture, and not acting on some of my important goals that could eventually shape my entire life, all boiled down to me not paying attention to broken windows. I started fixing broken windows.

There was a short period of time this year when I went to work super early (like 7.30ish). It was so amazing that by the time my colleagues rolled in around 10/10.30 I nearly had a day of work under my belt. I could then laze around and work slowly till end of day and yet complete a day and half's worth of work. What's better? I could leave earlier than everyone else and have a whole evening to myself. It was as if 24 hours had become 48. It didn't last long. A single day of sleeping-in became two, a weekend or two came by, then it was entirely forgotten. When I look back I realize that the single morning of sleeping-in was the broken window I'd neglected.

I came home this evening and cleaned my room to an extent I could on a weekday. I washed and dried by bed linen, changed my pillow covers, and did everything I could have done any weekend. The fact that I could have done this any weekend was the one making me procrastinate and neglect it. No better formula for failure than "It's right here, I'll do it some other time."

Did I just write a 1000+ word post to brag about the fact that I did my laundry? Perhaps. But that's a broken window that's no longer being neglected. I think fixing one after another is my next course of action. Find them, fix them. What's even more important is not let any of these break again. Isn't that the challenge? I'll gladly chase this local optima in the coming year.

On Reading

In 2016, I read nine books. Surprisingly, in 2014 and 2015 I seem to have read over fifteen books. 2015 was a good year because I'd purchased a Kindle and it had singlehandedly improved my reading by miles. All three years I set out to read 15-20 books and track them as part of the Goodreads challenge but did not meet my target even on a single occurrence.

In 2017, I set out to read 20 books. I knew I would come close because since I moved to Seattle in the summer of '16 I have been a regular at the Seattle Public Library. It has been my place of refuge, my happy place, a temple, all in one. I'll finish my year having read more than 35 books. 

That number is huge for me. Mainly for someone who did not grow up devouring books like some of my friends. I'm envious of them. However, I figured that reading, just like any other hobby can be developed at a later age as well if one puts their mind to it. And so I did. I read every day. Not just books but articles, long-form, profiles, reviews, and anything with good prose. All said I would have easily spent over 1000 hours this year reading. And the scale of it boggles my mind but it has been a snowball effect. I wanted to make something a habit and stick with it as a means to distract myself from certain things I wanted to distance myself from. And I guess I was pretty successful at it. It was an incredible year for me just in terms of the sheer variety of content that I got to read. Writing is perhaps one thing that brings me more joy than reading. And reading enough gives me enough depth and understanding of various subjects that I'd otherwise never get to understand., That in turn puts me in a good spot when I open a blank page and want to sound smart. So lesson # 1, if you want to see progress make it a habit and attack it in small chunks. There were days when I spent as little as fifteen minutes reading but I made it a point to read something or the other every day. It didn't matter whether it was a book or a magazine article. I just focused on the habit instead of worrying about targets. The Goodreads goal was a means to achieve my end goal -- read more.

In this post, I discuss my favorite books from what I read this year.

If you ask me what my most favorite book is or what my most favorite song is, my answer would vary based on what point I am in life. Sometimes I've given different answers on the same day even. This is to say that my favorites keep changing. However, this year has a clear winner for the most favorite book. Late Dr. Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air was easily my favorite book of the year. I was so moved by the book that I went back and re-read several passages to make sure I took in the feeling of reading those knowing what happened at the end. The book was so full of hope and compassion, and I simply do not have the ability to imagine how hard it must have been for someone to write a book like that with a terminal illness hanging over their head. Yet, Dr. Kalanithi managed to leave something for us all, especially his newborn daughter, to feel hopeful about life. I liked this book so much that I wrote a whole post on it. 

A close second is the late Ms. Marina Keegan's The Opposite of Loneliness. My obsession with Keegan's writing started when my friend introduced me to her essay. Keegan died in a car crash less than a week after that essay was published. That essay left me haunted. When I learnt that everything she'd written till then was collected and published posthumously, I immediately got my hands on that book and what great writing it was! Every single essay was so thoughtful and full of amazing prose that it was almost impossible for me to believe that some of them were simply class assignments. I'm thankful to my friend for introducing me to Keegan and her world of incredible prose.

The most interesting book I read this year was Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now. Johnson takes you through time and tells you the stories of the most important things that shaped civilization. I'm a sucker for trivia and this book was full of stories rich in trivia. Ranging from how they lifted buildings in Chicago so the city could have a sewer system to a table of everyone who had patented an idea of the light bulb before Edison, the book was chock full of extremely interesting stories. If you have even a passing interest in science or history of modern civilization I would strongly recommend you check this out. It keeps you hooked and is a very easy read. So much so that you wouldn't notice how fast you're devouring it.

The work of fiction that will remain very close to my heart from this year is Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I read it before there were talks of a movie (I'm cool like that) so I went in with not very many expectations. The book blew my mind. I'm a sucker for narratives and the book dealt with perspectives so well that it was almost like me sitting next to the characters and listening to them talk. The book reminded me so much of another book I'd read years ago, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Both books deal with children who find it difficult to cope with the world they live in, and both are so wonderfully written and do a great job of ensuring we feel compassion and understanding rather than feeling sympathy for the kids. I'm so glad Wonder was made into a movie and from what I hear from people who've caught it, it is well made.

Two books that made me laugh a lot were Kory Stamper's Word by Word and Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project. I absolutely relished every word of Word by Word (pun intended). Again, I'm a sucker for trivia and the book was full of great trivia. Stamper takes us through the life of a dictionary editor, and it was an amazing window into how much work it takes before a word is officially accepted as a word. Rosie Project, on the other hand, I took some time to warm up to. It was a book that started slowly and one I felt tried to please the reader so much but all of that was shattered as I got more invested in the book. That was the first time in a long time when I realized it has been forever since I genuinely laughed reading a story. If you need quick, light reads that will get you in a good mood I would totally recommend these two.

I read only one book in Tamil this year and that kind of makes me sad. But it was a book that equates to several. It was Na. Mutthukumar's Anilaadum Munril. It is a collection of essays that Mutthukumar wrote about blood relatives which originally came out as a series in a magazine. I realized albeit a bit late that his prose is as fascinating as his poetry. Every essay is a gem worth going back to several times. Especially the one on his son.

This year I got to read several works by Indian writers. Most favorite was, of course, Baradwaj Rangan's book on Mani Ratnam. I also got to read my first Sidin Vadukut book and it was a pretty quick, interesting read. It turns out that the book is not set in his usual genre - humor - but is a crime thriller. I'm looking forward to reading his earlier works in 2018.

Perhaps the most interesting work by an Indian writer I read this year was a graphic novel titled Kari by Amruta Patil. The protagonist is a queer female character who shares her name with the title of the book. It was my first graphic novel in a very long time and the subject, and the story arc left me very intrigued. It was unlike anything I'd read and even as I describe how I felt about the book I'm finding it difficult to pinpoint what exactly I found interesting or intriguing about the book. My inability to articulate my feelings about the book is very similar to the confusions Kari has about life and the people in it.

There it is, my favorite reads of the year. I read several other interesting books - No Country For Old Men and Three Body Problem. for instance. I was fortunate enough that almost all the books that I read this year were incredible and I could write pages and pages about each of them. But I need to stop somewhere. If you're further interested in finding out what else I read or read more about how I felt about these books you can check out my year of reading on Goodreads here. While you're at it, go ahead and add me as your friend on Goodreads as I'm constantly on the lookout for new book recommendations and people to chat about books.

The title of this post was itself inspired by the title of a book from one of my favorite writers -- On Writing by Stephen King.

 

Deepavali

I wrote this sometime in 2015 around this time of the year. Time embellishes a lot of things. I was probably bored witless during every Deepavali back home but here I am several thousand miles away from what seems to be an unusual amount of rain, even for Deepavali week, and thinking those days were the best of times. May be they were. I have strong reasons to believe they were.

I don’t know if I’ve ever imagined a background score for different time periods in my life, but if there was one, the months of October and November every year would feature symphonies carefully constructed to match the sound of firecrackers. I was pretty crazy about those - I’d usually ask for more crackers instead of clothes, or something like that. Now I’m smart with money and would probably not settle for a Rs.10 packet of bijili.

My Deepavali had a routine. Every year I spend the previous night at my grandmother’s place, wake up before the sunrises, brush, light a firecracker (because it is the rule), wait for my turn to get oil applied in my hair by my grandmother(without it getting into my eyes - she was particular about that), shower, have some sweets, and back to my earnest mission of elevating the world’s noise pollution levels. Before that paati will force me to have a small sample of deepavali lehyam - a concoction which is probably the greatest enemy my taste buds have battled. It is sweet and sour at the same time and extra spicy. She will bait me with the wide variety of sweets and of course, crackers. I would have no choice but to fall for it.

That was my routine till 2009, after which there was a significant deviation from the usual - most important of which was the fact that it was no longer my grandmother’s place. And I no longer was interested in firecrackers. May be it was the routine, or god forbid it was my antics to unsuccessfully avoid the devil’s concoction, or may be it was just paati, that made Deepavali what it was. In a few days, it will be six years since Deepavali stopped being any of these. It became just another holiday when more time was spent watching meaningless advertisements on TV with an occasional bout of Solomon Pappaiyya.

So many things have changed in the 6 years that passed. And, for some reason, for the past few weeks I’ve felt like I should write something about her. May be it is the season.

Come Tuesday it will be Deepavali, and as I’ve been doing so, out of routine, for the past 6 years, I’ll carry on with my life, only I won’t do the things that made Deepavali what it used to be.

May be this year I’ll take that oil bath, remembering to ensure the oil doesn’t get into my eyes.

Atonement

The West Wing has several memorable episodes, scenes, and dialogue exchanges. So much so that I can't really pinpoint a single scene or an episode and say, "yes, this is my favorite!" However, the exchange between President Bartlet and his staff about Yom Kippur made a deep dent in my mind. In that particular scene, he shares what someone had told him earlier that day about asking for forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, we ask for the forgiveness of God. But before that, on Erev Yom Kippur or the eve of Yom Kippur, we ask for the forgiveness of others we've harmed, sinned against -- common folk, friends, family, and people who would be friends and family otherwise except for this one incident you wronged them. You cannot ask for forgiveness for the sins you committed against God before you ask for forgiveness for the sins you committed against your fellow beings. This, he shares when they're contemplating how to share the news about the death of their children to the parents who'd lost them. It is very poignant and at the same time, wakes you up.

This scene plays in my head every now and then, for no rhyme or reason. And it always leaves me wondering how life would feel a little less heavy if I ask for forgiveness more readily, or think twice about how I'd have to live with something before doing it. I recently had a conversation at work about why refusing when someone asks something of us is almost reflexive. Similarly, defending, justifying, or worse shifting blame is mostly our first line of defense and later comes asking for forgiveness; almost as a plan B if plan A of getting away with it doesn't work out.

This is where walking in someone's shoes makes all the difference. If for a moment, we imagine ourselves to be in their place, would you have wronged someone in the first place? Would we hurt people? Would we say the things we say that ends up hurting people? Perhaps not.

Today is Erev Yom Kippur.

Though I don't believe in a superior being, I do like the philosophy of the day of atonement. If you think you're one step away from salvation and are seeking the final forgiveness for all your sins, you'd better do that to the common folk first.

I think it is important that I ask for forgiveness from everyone whom I've sinned against -- ranging from my kid sister whom I've hurt one too many times, for fun and, occasionally, in anger, to every individual who at some point felt that I wasn't giving them a fair treatment.

I'm going to make some calls and write some emails today. I may never receive someone's forgiveness for they may not feel I deserve it. But, I sure would feel better knowing that I'd taken the step. Knowing that would make things in life feel much less heavy.