Popping the ‘Ogden Nash Question’ on turning 45…

Nalaka Gunawardene at 45: Captured on 13 Feb 2011 by Dhara Gunawardene

As I turn 45 today, I can’t do better than to quote one of my favourite poets, Ogden Nash, who wrote these ‘Lines on Facing Forty’:
I have a bone to pick with fate,
Come here and tell me girly:
Do you think my mind is maturing late,
Or simply rotting early?

I first heard these words quoted by the late Tarzie Vittachi, a pioneer in development journalism – and an early influence on my career – at a talk he gave circa 1990. At the time, Tarzie was already in his late 60s, but he hadn’t lost the capacity to poke fun at himself.

More than two decades later, I can better appreciate both Tarzie Vittachi and Ogden Nash. I’m now more convinced than ever that a good sense of humour – whether plain, wry or wicked – is an essential element in our survival kit as we fumble along the path of life. In my case, I’ve pledged never to take myself too seriously; however, I’m passionate and serious about what I do.

I used to give this simple caution to all my newly recruited staff members:
“If you take me too seriously, you will lose your mind.
If you don’t take me seriously enough, you might (possibly) lose your job…”

After a while, I was told that it was prone to be highly misunderstood, partly because not everyone shared my play with words, and partly due to some people lacking any sense of humour. I no longer utter these words; the practical implications remain!

On more cheerful matters, my photographically keen daughter Dhara offered to shoot me as part her birthday present. I’m always happy to face cameras (and just love to make faces), so I readily agreed. Here are some of the better results, carefully chosen by the editor-publisher of this blog:

Nalaka G - with Mouth and Mind wide open...Photo by Dhara Gunawardene

I promise never to act my age!

Posing with the family photographer!

By the way, I’m perfectly happy with my salt-and-pepperish hair, and have resolved never to join the growing number of my friends quietly signing up to the ‘Godrej Brigade’ (I have no objections to others dyeing their hair: each one to her own self…).

In computing terms, I’m a WYSIWYG (pronounced: WIZ-ee-wig): an acronym for ‘what you see is what you get’. The term is used to describe a system in which content displayed during editing (on-screen) appears very similar to the final output.

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SOS from the Next Generation: “We need Good Parents!”

Market forces suspended here?

“Good parents are sooo hard to find these days!” exclaimed my teen-aged daughter Dhara recently. She was talking with her tongue firmly in her cheek — I hope!

In recent days, she’s been re-reading our collection of Calvin and Hobbes books, where the world’s most cheeky six-year-old keeps making wisecracks about his own mom and dad (‘Your approval ratings among household six-year-olds are way down’, ‘When are you standing for re-election, dad?’, etc.).

But Dhara’s light comment rang true, generally speaking. As every parent discovers sooner or later, parenting is a 24/7 job that lasts for two decades or longer. There’s no help desk or emergency number we can call. It’s more an art than a science, for which there is no comprehensive, fail-proof guide — even though plenty of advice is available on TV and online (some of it better than others).

Generic advice is helpful but not sufficient. Every parent-child situation is unique, and every parent has to find what works for him or her…ideally, the two parents working in tandem.

Does parenting come naturally? If only it did! I don’t believe in this grandma-knew-best kinda romanticising. For sure, some in our grandparents’ generation got it right, but there were also many who never did.

For something so consequential for the future of our species, there’s no minimum age or entry level or qualification. (As Dhara occasionally asks me, “You didn’t have to take any exam for this job, did you, dad?”. Come to think of it, I didn’t — although, in my case, I did give it a lot of thought first. Honest!)

Dhara with her dad-for-life, Jan 2010

Geeks express it a bit differently. “A human being is the best computer available to place in a spacecraft. . . It is also the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labour,” said the German-American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the brains behind the Apollo project that landed men on the Moon.

Although I can’t vouch for its authenticity, a similar quote from the mid 1960s is attributed to the US space agency NASA: “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labour.”

I don’t like their cynical analysis of something far more nuanced than their usual hardware and software. But they got a point there. Biomedical sciences have advanced much since the Moon landings, and today some medi-geeks are trying to ‘play God’ in creating life in a lab. I’d like to see how they can get a machine to mimic the 20+ year parenting process…

Making babies may be accomplished by unskilled humans in the right age, but raising babies is most decidedly a high skill, high intensity and highly demanding job. Especially in this day and age, when many kids are more tech savvy than their parents: the Digital Natives can easily run virtual rings around their Digital Immigrant parents.

We have to watch out, though, to listen carefully to what our children are saying to us — and also about us!

By the way, as one of my favourite authors, Roald Dahl, reminded us, “To children, all grown ups are like giants — who tell them what to do all the blooming time!”. (The worst parents in my mind are also created by Roald Dahl’s imagination: Mr and Mrs Wormwood, in his 1988 novel Matilda, which was adapted into a movie in 1996. In the movie, Papa Wormwood tells the precocious little Matilda: “Listen, you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong; and there’s nothing you can do about it!”).

The bottomline: am I a good parent? It’s not for me to judge — but I try hard being one. It isn’t an easy act for anyone, and especially for a single parent that I now am.

Someday, I hope, the one-woman jury won’t be too harsh on me…and may she never need to advertise for a replacement.

Flowers for Sir Arthur Clarke on his 92nd birth anniversary…

Dhara at Sir Arthur Clarke's grave, morning of 16 Dec 2009

“Whether you like flowers or not, they will eventually grow on you!”

Sir Arthur Clarke used to say this when my daughter Dhara and I presented him flowers every year on his birthday, 16 December. Dhara has grown up carrying flowers to Uncle Arthur all her life.

Had Sir Arthur been alive, he would have been 92 today. It now becomes his 92nd birth anniversary.

Although Sir Arthur has headed for the stars, Dhara and I still continue our annual tradition. We now take him flowers not to Leslie’s House, Sir Arthur’s Colombo home for over 35 years, but to his grave at Colombo’s general cemetery.

With a few red and pink roses in hand, we walked through the cemetery’s narrow pathways this morning. Last December, when we first made this journey, Sir Arthur’s grave was as yet unmarked, and could be located only if we looked for the graves of the departed Ekanayakes, members of his adopted Lankan family.

But now Sir Arthur has his own tombstone, with the epitaph of his choice:
‘Here rests Sir Arthur Charles Clarke.
He never grew up,
but he never stopped growing’

And unlike last year, when the gravesite had only a concrete surface, some grass is now growing there. We broke up the roses and sprinkled the petals on the grass. We left the last red rose in tact, nestled against the tombstone.

In the weeks and months following Sir Arthur’s death, so many have asked me what kind of monument is being planned in his memory. We live in a land where people love to put up ostentatious and perfectly useless structures to honour the departed. I simply keep quoting Sir Arthur’s own reply, when a journalist once asked him that very question: “Go to any well-stocked library, and look around…”

Those who leave behind such living legacies don’t really need monuments of brick and mortar. And as I told a recent meeting of the Rationalists Association of Sri Lanka to mark the birth anniversary, the legacy also continues in us who carry his flame and ideals…

Sir Arthur Clarke tombstone, on his 92nd birth anniversary