Thursday, June 24, 2010

Landon's Life Goal

By now many of you have heard about and/or seen the most important goal in the history of American soccer during my lifetime:

I was lucky to have caught the goal from here live. We had just finished Wednesday Meditation at Madhu and Meghna's, and Tap and I switched on the TV to see if we could catch the game. We tuned into USA vs. Algeria in the 83rd minute. When I saw that the score was 0-0, I thought to myself, "perfect timing!" We probably hadn't missed much. Very quickly from the pace of the game (frenzied and intense) the gravity of the situation started to hit me. We had to score a goal to advance. "This is the most important 6 minutes of Landon Donovan's professional life", I declared aloud in the 84th minute.

Why did I single out Landon? Because he is the best soccer talent the US has ever home grown. Because he, more than any other, represents American soccer worldwide. For someone like myself, who spent probably 95% of my free time between ages 4-18 playing soccer, there is a bit of kinship there and a sense of vicarious living. Out of all us who played and loved this game, gave so much of ourselves to it, he was the chosen one, the best of all of us. He is carrying the torch, you just hope he does something great with it.

Up to this game Landon's career has widely been regarded as a disappointment. Such high hopes and expectations on his shoulders, and he hasn't quite delivered on the biggest stage. But after his historical ups and downs this goal happens and in one moment all those hopes and dreams are realized. The thing is, the goal itself was relatively simple. But all of the hard work and practice and toil of a lifetime, the preparation for game after game over an entire career, the development of instincts and feel for your teammates, all of that came to bear in that single moment. He knew what run to make when his goalie got the ball, he started the attack, and was in the exact perfect position to bury that goal. There was nothing easy about that goal, there was a lifetime of work that went into it.

I watched the goal and when it went in I jumped up with an "OHHHHH!", but I really didn't know what to do. It was a bit of a shock, it felt like a fairy tale. "Match winner", I thought to myself. He had done it. Then the team celebrating, then the final whistle and Landon kicking the ball into the stands, his teammates giving him more hugs and thanks. It was an incredible moment, I kept thinking about it that night and was on a high.

Next day I read the recap of the game and I found myself searching quickly for Landon's comments. What was going through his head at this point?
"This team embodies what the American spirit is about," Donovan said. "We had a goal disallowed the other night. We had another good goal disallowed tonight. But we just keep going. And I think that's what people admire so much about Americans. And I'm damn proud."

"The moment kind of slowed down for me. It was as much a reaction as anything," Donovan said. "I kind of hesitated. I didn't know if he was going to play it across the goal or try to cut it back to me. Once he played it in front of the goal, I didn't sprint, but I kept my run going and once it popped off the goalie, then I picked up a little to get there."

"... It's something I'll have imbedded in my mind forever."
I was hoping he would put the goal in perspective in terms of what it means for his career, but it didn't matter. As I was reading his words I looked down and noticed I had goosebumps on both my arms, and was getting chills. The reaction made me think that a hidden personal dream had come to the surface through this moment, maybe I played all those years to try and make it on that stage myself in that moment and make that play for my country. Not sure, but I was sure that Landon had done it now, and what I felt most was happiness for him.

Of all the friends I grew up with playing soccer, there are at least 3 who I know read this blog: Gene (played D-1 at UC Santa Barbara, helping to make it a top-5 national program), Nate (played D-1 at UCSB, then professionally in the US), and Pav (dominated California youth soccer for a 1-2 year stretch when we were about 14, the best athlete of South Asian decent I have ever played any sport with). Dudes, what was your reaction to this goal, what did it mean to you?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Radiating Love

Last night I had the fortune of sharing dinner with both my advisor Tapan and Jayeshbhai (and at Seva Cafe no less!). It was wonderful because it was a chance to further blur between my work/research life (represented by Tap) and my service/values life (represented by Jayeshbhai). Not that Tap doesn't already share many of the same values (it's one of the reasons we work well together and also why I feel blessed with the type of mentorship I'm getting in grad school), but he hadn't met Jayeshbhai formally and it was great to finally get them together.

In typical form, Jayeshbhai dropped whatever he was doing and took the time to tell the Manav Sadhna story to Tap with full focus and devotion. It's really hard to capture Jayeshbhai, what he represents to me, in words. He is a pure-hearted, inspirational soul dedicated to serving others with humility, compassion, generosity, and most of all love. He just radiates love.

I wanted to share three tidbits from Jayeshbhai from the night:
  1. He was describing to Tap the humble beginnings of MS. He, his wife Anarben, and their friend Virenbhai were moved to serve children in any small way. Not necessarily to even teach them or empower them in any traditional sense. He used the words, "just giving value." They would go out to the street or a slum area and meet with kids, play with them, clean them, cut their nails, feed them snacks, etc. Just make them smile. From that small intervention things snowballed. They realized kids needed to earn to support their families, so they set up an "earn and learn" program to teach skills while generating income. Then they saw that parents also needed to be supported, so they started women's empowerment programs and eventually Gramshree. Then they saw that kids had trouble going to schools because of affordability and accessibility, so they started street schools. And on and on until they had developed a holistic set of programs for upliftment and empowerment. Jayeshbhai at one point talked about a contrast in their approach to western-style social welfare programs. He said that in many cases the west puts results at the top, logic second, and relationships at the bottom. He said that MS operates in the opposite way: start with relationships, then apply logic, and the results will follow.
  2. Another powerful story Jayeshbhai told was about a small act rippling into big impact. Like any other household, at Jayeshbhai's and Anarben's home, when guests would come over they would serve them tea. But at some point they asked why should that be limited to just their friends and acquaintances? So one day Jayeshbhai goes out into a busy public area, asking passers-by, "Would you like to come to our home and have tea?" And like that Jayeshbhai began having tea with strangers in his home. One of those strangers was a vegetable seller, who was carrying a huge heavy parcel of vegetables on her head. As they had tea, Jayeshbhai learned that she was very poor and had to walk miles with that parcel every morning to sell her vegetables to be able to earn for her children. Because she was on foot, she would have to leave her home at 4am to get to the market on time. Jayeshbhai asked if she would benefit from having a wooden cart to transport her vegetables, and she said of course. So Jayeshbhai gets one for her. A few months later she comes back to tell him how much the cart has made a difference for her, how much time and effort she saves and how grateful she is. And to top it all off she hands Jayeshbhai Rs.800 to pay him back for the cart! Jayeshbhai is moved by this, but instead of keeping it he asks the woman to bring back someone else she knows who would benefit from having a cart, so they could pay forward. The woman brings back a friend, who then brings a friend of hers, and so on until eventually they had funded 59 carts! And all of it started from a simple but radical cup of tea. It's a reminer that even a seemingly small act of kindness can lead to powerful ripple effects that we cannot predict.
  3. The last Jayeshbhai story wasn't from last night, but one that my cousin Jigar (a.k.a. Jig a.k.a. JEEEE-gah) told me recently. When Jig first came to India a few months ago, he was being introduced to people in and around the MS ecosystem. At one point he ran into a highly regarded social changemaker in Ahmedabad. Jig had heard good things about this person, so he approached the changemaker to introduce himself. But this person basically blew Jig off; they were busy schmoozing and shaking hands and generally carrying on with an air of self-importance. Jig felt like the person totally ignored him. Then some time later Jig was at MS minding his own business and in the far distance from the corner of his eye he noticed Jayeshbhai, whom he had yet to meet. But as Jig looked over he saw that Jayeshbhai, who himself was surrounded by people and busy, had noticed Jig, trying to make him out. Then he started to walk over. Jayeshbhai came up to Jig and said, "You are Samir's brother, right?" When Jigar said he was, Jayeshbhai immediately welcomed him and made him feel at home. He had never met or seen Jigar, had no special reason to try and find out who he was, but still he went out of his way to welcome him. And then here is Jigar months later recalling that incident and how much it meant to him and how good it made him feel. To me that is the essential teaching of Jayeshbhai. Whatever the circumstance, however chance, there is an opportunity to show love, and there is absolutely every possibility that you can deeply touch a person through even a small gesture.
The best portion of a good man's life is his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
--William Wordsworth
Editor's Note: Photos courtesy of MegaCreative and Mariette

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Organic Indian: Season 4

My favorite TV show of all time is HBO's The Wire. The show is set in Baltimore and explores urban America through the lenses of drugs, crime, poverty, politics, and media. The show is a marvel of contemporary television, a work of art that can appeal to the casual viewer, the critic, and everyone in between. The show ran for five seasons, with many including cultural pundit Bill Simmons claiming that Season 4 of The Wire was the single best season of any television program in the history of television.

It's hard for me to disagree. The first three seasons of The Wire saw the development of subtly deep and complex story lines, etching and sketching of unforgettable characters, all the while setting up for something extraordinary. Season 4 was that something. It was mind-blowing, the show went to a higher place.

And in the same way here we are, at the 4th season of this blog. The first three seasons no doubt had their share of complex story lines. In Season 1, like in Season 1 of The Wire, it was about being introduced to the game. I lived in an Ashram, coming to grips with a reality in which my toilet was a hole in the ground, rats ran into my shower, and I worked out as if I was in a jail cell. I also started to learn about rural India and agriculture, setting the stage for future adventures.

Season 2 of The Wire was about broadening the perspective. How do drugs and gangs in urban Baltimore relate to the blue-collar community of Baltimore port workers? I, too, broadened in Season 2. I went from exploring and learning to doing. I had a project and people to manage, and results to achieve. Season 3 of The Wire was about "the more things change, the more they stay the same", where we see the futility of trying to wage a "war on drugs." Lock up the ruling drug kingpin, and another one steps right in to claim the crown, unfathomably more ruthless and diabolical than his predecessor.

Season 3 of TOI wasn't so ruthless as it was diabolical. OK, that didn't make sense. But still, things changed, and also stayed the same. I found new stuff to make fun of, like Bollywood movies, eating at McDonald's, and my cousin Samir. But I continued to develop Avaaj Otalo from the summer before, and I continued to find reasons why living in India was both uncomfortable and amazingly wonderful.

The Wire's fourth season brilliantly wove in the education system and urban youth into the rich quilt of plots and subplots that had already been established. The new perspective took the show to a whole other level. In this, the fourth season of TOI, I will similarly take things to the next level. This will be the single best season of blogging in the history of blogging.

Why so confident? Because I've got a small (~3) but hardcore group of readers who continue to encourage me. The most prominent of those readers is my uncle, Babu Patel. Babumama goes on the Internet as a part of his daily routine, and he visits the same small handful of websites every day. He only reads two blogs: this one and Amitabh Bachchan's blog. So yeah, it's just me and Big B. To me it means Babumama regards this blog highly, which is why I've endorsed him as President of The Organic Indian Reader's Association (Vice President and Head of Legal Affairs is Tarandeep Kaler).

The Prez and I chatted for a bit on my vision for this season of blogging. I told him I wanted to do more frequent posts, but shorter, hearkening back to the first season. He really had no comment, just kept talking about how good Bachchan's blog is. He asked me why it was that when he googled "Amitabh Bachchan" the blog came right up, but when he googled my name this blog was nowhere to be found. I told him because millions read Bachchan's blog, and tens read mine. Then he asked, "Why don't more people read your blog?" Good question.

Which brings us to my goals for this summer. In order of importance:
  1. Take the top spot from Big B in my uncle's blog reading rotation. Your ass is mine Paa.
  2. Continue to develop Avaaj Otalo, improving its capabilities and functionality and expanding its use with new partners. We already have set up a second phone line for PRADAN/Digital Green in Madhya Pradesh, and there could be one or two other deployments launching in other parts of India.
  3. Graduate. As hard as it is to believe, I don't go to India every year just to goof off. In between I'm trying to do enough to satisfy my advisors to let me graduate. It's been a long road, but a very valuable one. And now I can see a hint of a flicker of a light at the end of the tunnel. This summer I will be trying to take some significant steps in my thesis work.
Last order of business is my customary disclaimer, in case you are a new reader. The purpose of this blog is two-fold: one, a way for me to stay in touch with family and friends back home; and two, to entertain you, the gentle reader. I am not trying to be particularly smart or insightful or a good writer, so if you want to challenge me in one or more of those dimensions, know that I have preemptively conceded defeat. Although I try to write things I can stand by, I also reserve the right to change my position any time, any place. This blog is more firehose than laser beam, I try not to edit and craft too much as I think the end result is something more authentic to my state of mind at a given moment. So while I think some posts have come out as thought-provoking and important, in general I hope this blog comes off more Colbert than Crossfire.

I'll end with a story, and like last year it is about my mom. The day before my flight my mom and I were driving to Target and we were talking about vivid memories in one's life. There are certain memories that for one reason or another stick with you, and you can recall them and remember every detail even if the time was decades ago. My mom was telling me how two very vivid memories for her are the births of me and my brother. She remembers exactly the look on our faces when we came out: I came out guns blazing, eyes wide looking around frantically here and there and everywhere, as if saying, "what is going on here?" Mom said that made her think that my personality was driven and purposeful, a "I am here for a reason" kind of personality. My brother came out perfectly peaceful and calm, there was a little crying when the umbilical was cut but after that just peaceful and restful. My mom says she remembers sitting in the hospital room with Jay and seeing my dad and me through the window. She remembers me holding Dad's hand, then him holding me up to see Jay, and she remembers me poking at the window to Jay, saying "Baby, baby". She'll always remember those memories, they'll stick with her forever.

For me, a disproportionately high number of vivid memories are from my times in India. Maybe it's because this place still feels foreign which takes me out of my comfort zone, and as a result I have a heightened awareness to things going on. But I think it's more than that. I have genuinely amazing life experiences here. I tend to come here with an exploratory mindset, and a sense that I have no control over what's going on. I'm just along for the ride, and when you live life with that mentality it seems like you unconsciously create space for things to flow in organically memorable ways. I have three seasons of proof that these are some of the most wonderful times of my life, and I expect Season 4 to be no different.