Two Wonderful Girls. One Day At A Time…

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The Summer of 2017 Part I – The Summer of Hate

As the girls grow older, my blog posts have reduced in frequency. Part of the reason is that they’re reaching the age where I want to respect their privacy and the covenant between parent and child. High level posts on Facebook seem more appropriate than thoughtful analyses of the personal growth I enjoy as a parent. That said, I had a very exciting blog post to make about the wonderful summer I’ve had with the girls that I thought would capture the special time I had with them. And I promise that is still coming. Unfortunately, I feel like a separate blog post is required to describe what this summer has been like and what it has meant to me as a parent given the general social climate.

After the events of Charlottesville took place last weekend, a common refrain I’ve heard is “what am I supposed to tell my children?” Let me tell you what to tell them.

  • Tell them what you were going to tell them when they hear that a student at Stanford named Brock Turner would do the disgusting things that he would do, even though he’s supposed to be a model student-athlete at the pre-eminent academic institution in the world.
  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them when they find out a young black man is executed third-world style in front of his fiancee and child in his car in Minnesota and the officer is exonerated because he was supposedly the one in danger–and that this is a carbon copy of stories all around the country.
  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them when they learn that two men were shot in a restaurant in Kansas because they looked no different than me and a man actually thought that was justification for killing one of them.
  • Tell them what you’re going to tell then when they discover that one of academically brilliant employees at Google would misrepresent a study to state that women are incapable of the engineering prowess of men and suggest that it was fostering dialog instead of its reality: an attempt to propagate the oppressive sexism that keeps Silicon Valley broken.
  • Tell them what you were going to tell them when you share the personal story of being chased down by a skinhead in an alleyway in Sacramento a month before you got married because you dared to be a brown man walking in the opposite direction. (Oh, was that just me?)
  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them when your neighbors in a wealthier area of town are trying to break off the school district from the poorer regions and, when accused of segregation, respond “hey, we’ve actually always had segregation, so this new segregation is no problem!” (I am not sure where to begin)

What do you tell the kids? You tell them that there are bad people in the world. You tell them that there are bullies at school and those bullies grow up to be disingenuous parents, stray law-enforcement professionals, talk show hosts, and, of course, hypocritical, spineless elected officials.  You tell them that there is injustice from every angle and their responsibility is to fight it, like the two students that interrupted Turner’s attacks, the good samaritan who chased down the Kansas assassin, or even those who risk their own safety to defy, dishonor, and destroy the evil that we wish you didn’t have to know about. To quote the final post of Heather Hyer,  “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Now I see all the tweets about the fact that the news doesn’t reflect reality. “Hey, we all love our neighbors and the news is blowing it out of control. Everything is great!” People who say that are absolutely missing the point of what they’re saying in the news. Of course we love our neighbors, they are homogenous representations of ourselves. And in close circles, we can bury her head in the sand and assume that the injustices happening in the world do not exist. That is until a group of teenage Trump supporters drive by your house pumping their face and yelling “Trump Trump Trump” and some sort of victory cry after the riots in Charlottesville, not unlike the celebration after the Warriors won the NBA championship (yes, that happened to us last Saturday). I don’t doubt that they get along with one another. I doubt that I’ve ever met any one of them before and their parents are probably stay clear of me. If I ignore them, I imagine I’d be happier. However, if there’s one parental message I can think of in this post, it’s that ignorance is never a solution.

At one point this summer, Robyn asked why we watch the news and why we paid attention. After all, after seeing the frustrating governance of our country, the injustices to other groups, and the outrage the forces us to march in to fight, wouldn’t it be easier if we just didn’t pay attention to such things? Cherise and I quickly snuffed out that idea. No, don’t ever forget that it is your responsibility to seek out the truth and fight injustice. 50 years ago, your mother and I weren’t allowed to get married. It was some very thoughtful people that fought against it and earned rights for us. And that’s why we do it for LGBTQ people and that’s what I will do it for the next set of oppressed people. That’s why we march for women. That’s why we give to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Never stand for injustice. Don’t hide from it in a “safe space”. Push back when you see it. Speak out against it. March against it. And if you’ve got it in you like Mommy does, run for office. Represent those who need representation. Make your voice heard. Even if you become a software developer or veterinarian, you have a responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves. If we teach you anything, I can only hope that this is the most important lesson you get.

I suppose I could’ve said the opposite. “Yeah, don’t worry about the news. You’re too young for that.” But at what age do we teach outrage? At what age does ignorance or acceptance give way to social responsibility and facing the bullshit instead of hiding away in protected conclaves that protect the easily offended (c’mon colleges, quit protecting your students). Last year, when Iris became increasingly interested in civics, we were fully invested in the election process until Donald Trump became the nominee and I pulled back, preferring to wait until the circus left town–not so much because I was afraid to show it to her as much as I was confident it was an aberration of US History. Well, I was wrong. The circus is here and it’s part of our lifestyle. Ignoring it in a bubble of wealth only makes us complicit in its consequences and derelict in our responsibilities as parents. I won’t do that.

Why I Joined The Board At Women’s Audio Mission (WAM)

I recently joined the board at WAM (Women’s Audio Mission), a wonderful organization in the bay area that provides  hands-on training, work experience, career counseling and job placement to over 1,200 women and girls every year in creative technology for music, radio, film, television and the internet. We gave to WAM as part of our #100ForKoka campaign and they reached out to see if I wanted to take a greater role. Meeting with the Executive Director and Head of the Board, I was very excited about the opportunity. I thought I would share a letter that I sent to the board as part of my candidacy confirmation…

For those of you who haven’t met me yet, my name is Sandy Khaund. I am the founder and CEO of UPGRADED, a company that has built a platform that leverages the blockchain to secure event tickets. My Twitter description says I’m a “Father. Husband. Innovator. Runner. Sports Nut. Music Lover.”  As I’ve been thinking about WAM, I remembered to add that last one. It’s such an important part of who I am.

The explanation of why I want to be part of this organization is probably covered in some of my other activities associated blog posts, including my work with Inventors University (a fledgling organization where my 11 and 8-year old daughters teach Python and Scratch to elementary school girls on weekends) and the opportunities that I’ve had to speak out on behalf of promoting women in STEM (link, link).

But my unique enthusiasm for WAM can be traced to Dave Grohl. Dave Grohl, the greatest drummer in the world. Dave Grohl, who once played every instrument on an incredible 12-song debut solo album and turned it into a band. Dave Grohl, the author of the greatest song ever written (“Everlong”–this is not up for debate).

Grohl gave a speech at SXSW three years ago. If you’ve never seen/read it, I highly recommend it. I’m probably lucky he didn’t give this speech when I was 20 or else I’d be a struggling musician as opposed to a well-off engineer. While the whole speech rocked my world, it’s these words that reminded me of why tech was my calling…

It’s there, if you want it. Now, more than ever, independence as a musician has been blessed by the advance of technology, making it easier for any inspired young musician to start their own band, write their own song, record their own record, book their own shows, write and publish their own fanzine (although now I believe you call it a “blog”?) . . . now more than ever, YOU can do this, it can be all yours. And left to your own devices, you can find YOUR VOICE.

Technology is the path to creativity, and for girls, creativity can and should be the real draw of technology. Don’t go into technology because you can implement an Inversion of Control design pattern in Javascript. Go because you can create something with meaning and value. Go because you can find your voice. And for so many girls, WAM is the path for girls to find their voice. And if, as a means to an end, they happen to learn the value of technology and the careers associated with it in the process, well that would be kinda nice as well. 🙂

Logistically, I expect that my ultimate contribution would be dictated by need. Skills wise, I’ve always prided myself on being multifaceted. I have three technical degrees as well as an MBA. My titles have ranged from CEO, to COO, to Director of Marketing, to CTO. I’m told this makes me either flexible or schizophrenic. From my conversations, the board clearly has some very talented people involved and my goal isn’t to provide redundancy as much as the step in where I most needed and can add value. And baseball terms, I’m willing to be the “utility player” as much as possible. Consider my years of running my own startups as training to expect the unexpected.

But with that said, I do have an expectation of baseline contributions. I love the idea being an evangelist for WAM to my network and an ambassador when one is needed. I love the idea of helping craft/refine the vision and strategy for expansion. I love the idea of being another person for Terri could use as a resource going forward. And I love the idea of sitting on the side and watching budding minds geek out on the cool equipment in the studio. And I hope I’m given those opportunities.

Open Letter Regarding NUSD

As I watch the constant debate around the creation of a new school district in our neighborhood, I’m reminded of this new path that the nation seems to be taking. As with our President’s proclamation of “America’s First”, oblivious to the consequences and shirking our responsibility as a global leader, NUSD is clearly this neighborhood’s attempt at a proclamation of “Northgate First”.

The approach to this exodus is troubling. No one likes gerrymandering, a frustrating tactic used by politicians to subvert the political system by manipulating district boundaries to create an unfair advantage. NUSD is the educational resource version of gerrymandering, a blatant attempt to manipulate boundaries in order to sequester wealthier resources and optimize for their own gain without regard to the impact on the rest of the community. This isn’t necessarily racist. It is absolutely ignorant. It is self-serving benefit disconnected from communal responsibility.

The irony is that, in the name of promoting education, the lessons that our children are getting from this is to take care of yourself first and not think about the consequences it has on the community around you. The message to those affected by this move is clear: your problems are “not my problem”.  We shouldn’t tolerate that. I prefer to live by the words of George Bernard Shaw, who once said “My life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.” That’s the philosophy we can choose to take or we can march towards “Northgate First”. Let’s choose carefully. Our children are watching.

The Story of Inventors University

When I first taught Iris how to program an Arduino back in the 2nd grade, she anointed our sessions as “Inventors University”. Inspired by her incessant reading of Harry Potter, she imagined our sessions as classes at Hogwarts and me as Dumbledore. She even wore her Gryffindor robe to some of our programming sessions. It became our special thing and a new way to bond while she could learn and I didn’t feel like I was pushing technology on her.

As time went on, we began to include Robyn in our classes and would do everything from individual instruction (Iris focusing on Python and Robyn focusing on Scratch) to joint lessons on the Swift programming language (and our “Meet The Dogs” app). Their work wasn’t limited to “class”. Iris went on her own and wrote a Python graphics script for Robyn’s birthday present last year (which painted a Harry Potter wand along with “Happy Birthday Robyn”) and even built a simple Assamese-to-English translator after learning some of the language from my family during a trip back east. Meanwhile, Robyn made a game called “Birdminton” in Scratch, which is a unique version of the Atari classic Pong with two birds on each side. She even managed to include a black and orange bird with the number 13 on it, an homage to Orioles third baseman Manny Machado (seriously, I LOVE this kid). Combining tech and parenting was the ultimate win-win and made for a fun way to let the weekends go by. In fact, when Cherise went to Africa for a couple of weeks last year, we really got into it and it became the dominant theme for that time. We often talked about extending our university to people outside our family, but coordinating schedules and just making the time got to be too difficult and we just kept it as our private fun club.

And then the election happened.

I wanted to lash out about the statement it made about the value of women in society. I wanted to lash out about the statement it said about our disenfranchised people in this country. I wanted to lash out about the statement it made about the judgment it passed on brown people like myself. But it was up obvious that that would accomplish nothing. So I withheld my social media comments from Facebook (except in cases of sheer stupidity, when I couldn’t resist), and decided there had to be a better way. I resolved to do something. But how do you fight selfish, egotistical behavior? How do you help the community in a way that is antithetical to what you fear is becoming of our country? How do you make the world a better place? What talents can I deliver that can make change when the voting public can’t do it? And then it hit me.

Inventors University as a tool for change.

Instead of creating our club for our friends, could we find a deserving group of girls who otherwise couldn’t get the opportunity to do something like this? Iris and Robyn attend schools that are flush with cool gadgets, qualified teachers, and encouragement to get into tech. But for a lot of kids out there, they might get their “Hour of Code”, but that’s about it. With all due respect (and I love the concept), an hour is only a tease and spending that hour following a recipe of instructions doesn’t validate the act of coding as a means of creativity. It barely scratches the surface. Meanwhile, they might see computers in the lab every now and then, but they could never imagine having a computer of their own. That’s a realistic problem for a lot of kids today. These were the kids Cherise had in mind when she ran for school board, not our kids. What if we extended our club to them? What if we provide them the gifts that we take for granted–ownership of technology, encouragement to learn, and freedom to create?

Now I confess that when I started thinking of this approach, I wasn’t sure about was whether my girls would be so willing to give up of our special club to a bunch of strangers. But I wasn’t done. Things were about to get worse for them. I decided to throw a wrinkle on them that I knew would make them uncomfortable: I was going to make them teach the classes.

When they first heard my request, the girls probably assumed they had a sadistic father that was just trying to make life hard on them. But honestly, there is rhyme and reason to my approach. You see, I have a theory about the lack of women in tech. Females are, by nature, more communal and more collaborative. They tend to be more social, they tend to want to spend more time with other people. Honestly, I find myself happier when I spend more time with female friends then male friends and I think this is part of the reason why. However, most computer science professionals are not communal. They prefer solitary environments, they prefer to work with headphones on and focused, leveraging a very simple relationship with their computers. People can be hard. They can be nuanced, irrational, and erratic. Some of the best coders I know find people frustrating and prefer machines. Machines are consistent and deterministic. I say that because that’s how I got into computers. There were many lonely nights as a child where I’d be writing code from dinner time to bedtime, alone in my bedroom by myself.  I just appreciated the solitude. I wouldn’t even describe myself as a lonely kid, but I just loved getting lost in my code. And those hours are what gave me both the skill and the confidence to do this job full-time. I still have a tendency to do that, staying up long after Cherise and the girls have gone to bed. Meanwhile, Cherise ditched engineering after Stanford because (as she memorably told me on our first date) the first job after graduation was so boring and lonely. As we like to joke, the difference between us is that she gets no pleasure from staring at a computer screen for hours in search of a bug. She needs contact and the world lost a capable female engineer…

But development doesn’t have to be a lonely undertaking. It doesn’t have to be solitary. It doesn’t have to be a sage on the stage, lecturing while a bunch people take notes and follow some strict set of steps that involve no creativity. In fact, I’m convinced that we lose some very capable people amidst the boredom of rote instructions and impersonal machines. Instead, it can be peers teaching other peers, encouraging creativity and going on your own. The greatest thing about a computer is that it is an amorphous tool that can be anything you want it to be. It can be a book, a fountain of information, an art canvas, or the ultimate Swiss Army Knife. You just have to know how to use it. And it doesn’t have to be an authoritarian adult that teaches you. It can be a peer who knows why this stuff is exciting and can get you excited in the process. Robyn’s “Birdminton” should be more inspiring to a kid than Steve Jobs’ iPhone because a kid sees something that was achievable by someone just like her. Before any kid builds the iPhone, they need to build their Birdminton. That’s the power of peer learning.

The other problem is access. My life changed when my dad got me a computer. We didn’t have a lot of money and it stretched our budget in ways that he would have preferred to avoid, but he knew he needed to feed my desire. My life and my livelihood can be traced to my family’s sufficient funds and the willingness of my father to prioritize that computer over the vacations we didn’t take and the cars we never bought. Many kids don’t have that luxury. But it’s 2016. A pocket-size fully functional Linux computer costs $35, $70 with all the extras (cords, keyboard/mice, etc). Sure they need to learn a few extra things about it, but isn’t that the fun part? Owning your own computer and being able to do special tricks with it? Well that was the case for Iris and Robyn and we believe that being the case pro lot of girls out there who don’t get those opportunities.

I’m not going to lie. I have an ulterior motive as a father in doing this. I want my daughters to learn about others who are not as fortunate as them and empathize, not sympathize. I want them to think of their lives as a life of service to those who need their help, even if they need to extend outside their chosen profession. I want them to adopt leadership roles, overcome their shyness, and gain confidence. I want them to know that they can be the change they wish to see in the world. I want them to learn tech and you learn best by teaching, so they will build their tech skills. I want them to think entrepreneurially and opportunistically, which is why 80% of the design of this idea is theirs. And most of all, like the motto of the school, I want them to listen to the words of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech: “Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams”. That quote, along with the Inventors University logo (designed by Iris), is posted on each of their bedroom doors. I don’t take those words lightly. In fact, I’d say they’re what spurred me into action.

So, we’re doing this. Our website is live. Our Facebook page is live. We’ll plan to start with a 10-week program on Saturday mornings that goes from January to March and hopefully follow that up with a Summer Camp. Each girl has come up with lesson plans (Iris for Python and Robyn for Scratch) on what they will teach each week. We have T-shirts and notebooks ordered, Raspberry Pis tested and about to be ordered, Scratch accounts preset, and even a student questionnaire to help pair up partners, and a school identified as the source of the first students. Throughout this month, Iris and Robyn will be practicing teaching classes to everyone from friends to their grandmother and uncle. I think Iris is occasionally a little nervous, but starting to get more excited as things get more real. As the original founder of Inventor’s University, I think she’s starting to feel the pride that goes with creating something that becomes bigger than herself. She came up with the logo, made a proposal for the summer camp structure, and constantly peppering me with Python questions. Robyn has become the drillmaster, constantly reminding me about stuff that needs to be done, bringing a notebook to dinner to discuss different ideas, and constantly badgering me to order materials for the school. It makes working from home harder as she’ll come by my office at 4pm and ask if I’ve read her documents (“honey, I promise I’ll review your slides after dinner, OK?” Not a sentence I expect to say to a 3rd grader). She’s convinced her teacher to allow some time in class for her to practice her teaching on her classmates. She has even wanted to cancel playdates because it’s interfering with her planning. Seriously, she’s borderline obsessed with it. I think she’s after my job as Headmaster, so I should probably be a little nervous if I wasn’t so proud.

So, how can you help? You might think I’m going to ask you for money, but I’m not. At least not yet. 🙂  The first wave of students will be eight 4th and 5th graders and we should be able to foot the bill personally as our only cost is materials and $100 per kid for computer & accessories, IU notebook, T-shirt, and snacks should keep us under $1000.  Robyn really wanted to put a PayPal donation button on our site (lessons learned from Cherise’s campaign, I suppose), but I think if we opened up donations, we might pass the amount and I don’t want to do that yet as we still need to figure out whether this is sustainable and also determine whether we are in a position to make this a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. If you’d really like to chip in, let me know privately as external support would make this feel a little less like a family project and would make it easier to make commitments for the summer. But here’s what I would appreciate: positive reinforcement. I’m not asking for you to praise them, but rather praise the cause. It’s obviously not about me, but I also don’t want this to be about them. I want this to be about the kids that they are helping. Cherise spent three months running a campaign that put the needs of these less fortunate kids over those of her daughters and I want those daughters to carry on that legacy. I want them to understand that, as a community, we stand for the opportunities for these underrepresented girls to be given access to technology and cultivate a learning and a love for computers. That’s the object lesson here to impress upon them.

So visit our website at inventors-university.com, “Like” the Inventors University Facebook page, and stay connected to our progress. Go ahead and comment here. Send them a private text or email through me.If you see the girls around, let them know if you think this is a worthwhile project (they’ll squirm as they’ll feel self-conscious about potential praise, but it’s good for them). Make sure they know that despite election results and the complete disregard of human decency, there are people who still believe in the greater good.

Nomal Dutta (1936-2016)

How do you recognize a man who mentored and supported you for years, even showing up to your high school graduation? Who was once your Dad’s best friend? Who provided the lone eulogy at your Mom’s funeral?

Nomal Dutta, or “Dutta Uncle” as I affectionately knew him, passed away yesterday and the world lost a truly special person. As I went for a run to process the news, I kept thinking about a line Vin Scully used in his final broadcast to describe his tremendous career that had reached its end: “Don’t be sad that it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Dutta Uncle was a critical part of the Indian community that collaboratively raised me through my early years. With his shaded glasses and cherubic smile, he was one of the more distinguishable members of our tribe and his laugh was as memorable as any part of him. When I first met his wife Pronoti Auntie and him in their apartment in NYC, I was overwhelmed how truly genuine and accommodating they were. Two outsized personalities, quick with a smile and generous to a fault.

When Dutta Uncle move to New Jersey, the dynamic of our relationship changed completely and he became one of my closest elders (physically and emotionally), only a 15 minute drive away. We went to his house so many times that, as soon as I’d walk through the door, I’d skip the pleasantries and go straight to the family room and turn on the TV. It had become my home away from home during my early teenage years. I would park myself on the couch, await Pronoti Auntie’s insanely delicious food, and enjoy chatting with him before the adults moved over into the other room and I would just hang out eating food and watching sitcoms. But I got really excited during those Saturday afternoons when he would host cookouts. Let me tell you: the man could barbecue. Despite the fact that I’m a pretty big man, I don’t have very many epic eating stories in my life, but I can tell you that I once ate 12 pieces of his barbecued chicken–in one sitting. Usually, Indian mothers encourage you to eat even more, but even my Mom had to be thinking “damn Sandy, that’s enough.” I still don’t know how my 15-year-old frame handled all that poultry, but I imagine my semi-vegetarian daughter shrieking if she knew how many chickens gave their lives for her father’s weakness of this BBQ chicken. I don’t know what Dutta Uncle put in his marinade, but I’m willing to bet it’s been banned in several states for his addictive nature. My mouth is watering as I type this paragraph.

Dutta Uncle was a Yankee fan. Somehow, I was willing to forgive him. In all honesty, the rivalry of the Yankees and the Orioles only managed to make our relationship even more fun. It included a Saturday afternoon trip to the Bronx in 1986 where we watched our teams play one another at Yankee Stadium, with my favorite pitcher at the time (Mike Boddicker) pitching. It’s one thing for an uncle to take his  nephew to a baseball game. It’s another one thing for that uncle to take him all the way from Jersey…going from car to bus to train in a 3-hour journey…each way…in the pouring rain…withstanding a two hour rain delay during the game. And he smiled and chatted the whole way through. My father never even did that for me. But then again, my father was never a Don Mattingly freak.

The dynamic changed again years later when he was responsible for getting me my first desk job, making calls on his behalf  for the Prudential. I’m not gonna lie. I hated that job. That job makes every job I’ve had since more bearable. But, he showed faith in me and he trusted me. And I hoped that I could help him out, even though I admit that I was not very good at the job. Still, what I remember about that job is not the countless phone calls to people who had no interest in buying insurance. What I remember is us carpooling to the office in Eatontown, usually 30 minute drive from his house where we would meet up. A few days a week, we would go along that drive in his maroon Toyota Camry and chat. Sometimes, we would talk about the news (he always played CBS News Radio in the background). In other cases, he would give me some sort of fatherly advice. As I’ve learned over the years, you can never surround yourself with enough good people. I also feel I owe a debt of gratitude to anyone who impacted the way I raise my own daughters. I can safely say that Dutta Uncle’s nurturing manner and mentorship has influenced some of the ways that I have dealt with my own daughters. He had no children, but an endless supply of “nieces” and “nephews” that he treated as his own.

Eventually, I moved on to bigger and better desk jobs. By the time I had taken a full-time job after college, I would still occasionally go over to his house. In a lot of cases, the reason was his computer. Something about being an Electrical Engineering major made me tech-support for him. I can remember one time when my dad told me Dutta Uncle needed my help and, in those stupid moments of youth, I rolled my eyes as if to say “He should fix his own computer”. My dad shot one glance at me and I knew: I was simply servicing a debt they could never be repaid in full.

Distance can be unkind and I admit that our relationship lost steam over the last 20 years since I moved out to California. Our meetings were limited to weddings and funerals, including my Dad’s memorial service, which was the last time I got to see him. I never got a chance to say thank you or show my appreciation for all that he did for me. I’m hopeful that he recognized it on his own and and that he realized that, despite having no children of his own, he managed to achieve a far greater legacy than many people who have several kids but never make the effort or take the time the way he did for me. I am better for it. My kids are better for it. He will be missed.

The Greatest E-Mail Ever

Apparently, in this election cycle, people like to talk about e-mail and people love hyperbole. So, I’m going to tell you a story about the greatest e-mail ever. Wait. Let me re-phrase that. (Hands gesticulating) The GREATEST. E-MAIL. EVER.

The story starts out like your typical rom-com. Man goes to a party. Man sees woman from across the room and she catches his eye. Eventually, he gets to courage to talk to her. Then she shares her story: a Stanford engineering grad who quit a potentially lucrative career to be a VISTA volunteer, making $600/month. The man is wildly impressed. There is no way to question this woman’s commitment, but she is neither naïve nor condescending. That was how Cherise Melton (and very fortunate for me, now Cherise Khaund) and I first met. We spent the next five hours, just talking, just listening, lost in our private world that would eventually become my sanctuary for so much of the past 18 years of my life. Eventually, I needed to get my friend home. So, I said my goodbye, gave her a hug, and never bothered to ask for her number.

The next day, I realized how stupid I was. I didn’t know what to do.

So despite it being the days before anyone heard of Google, I managed to do some web searching and found her phone number (yikes!) and her e-mail address (hmm). Yes, e-mail. That was the way to go. I can think it out. I can sound witty  and clever. And I don’t have to worry about swallowing my tongue. As you can tell, I wasn’t exactly Dr. Smooth in the 90s.

So I spent the next 24 hours crafting the perfect e-mail. And the next morning, I read it one last time and sent it off. And waited…And waited…No response…

Four…days…later. The phone rang and I got the most important phone call of my life. Cherise didn’t even respond to the e-mail. She called. Because that is Cherise. Unlike me, she doesn’t leave anything to chance. I had a lot to learn from this woman. And I have…

Needless to say, things worked out pretty well. But beyond the obvious gaining of a best friend, she’s changed my world view. As a generation much younger than mine would say, I’m “woke”. My world awareness has expanded thanks to her unique overseas upbringing and the global experiences she’s had. We’ve had two wonderful daughters and, through them, Cherise has taught me the art of selflessness. I see the benefits of her approach not only in the tremendous relationship she has with the girls, but also with the amazing way they’ve managed to reflect their mother’s tendencies in their own behavior. She’s compassionate. She’s inviting. She’s the one that introduces herself to the new neighbors while everyone else lurks in the distance. She makes that beeline to the new parent at school, making the new person feel like she’s been a part of the community for years. When she’s around, things happen, people mobilize, and the world is never the same. Take it from me.

But hey, this is a story about e-mail, right? The e-mail that changed my life. The e-mail that we even re-printed in our wedding program. And I know what you’re thinking–could I have imagined this life, this wonderful life, having been launched from that one e-mail?

Yes. Yes I could. And I did.

I predicted ALL of this. Well, I expected we’d have two boys, but with a mother like Cherise, the world needed her to have daughters to truly benefit from her inspiration. I’d cede that one to fate. The rest of it? When I wrote that e-mail, I saw it all. The love, the partnership, the house, the kids, the dog. I imagined learning her world and sharing mine. I imagined a relationship of trust and equality. I imagined a partnership built on love and understanding, learning and growing from each other every day. That’s what spending one night just talking and listening to this woman can do. I didn’t need 18 years. I barely needed 18 minutes. She’ll make you a believer. She’ll change your world. I wake up each morning with the Wayne’s World phrase “I’m not worthy” in my mind. Genuine. Selfless. Assertive. Tireless. Well, maybe not tireless–she usually passes out on my shoulder by 10:30pm due to sheer exhaustion. In fact, that’s her flaw–we occasionally have to watch The Daily Show twice because she missed it the first time. She’s an inspiration to my daughters and she should be an inspiration to yours.  I’ve seen her at her best. I’ve seen her at her worst (which is probably still better than my best). As her husband, her decision to run for School Board was one of my proudest moments. When she decided on the next step of her life, money wasn’t the deciding factor. Status wasn’t the deciding factor. Impact was. She’s been training for this her whole career. It’s what drove her to focus on education policy in Seattle. It’s what inspired her to get her MPA in non-profit management at the University of Washington. It’s what drove her to volunteer her time extensively to a literacy non-profit for years, helping kids who couldn’t help themselves. It’s why she stepped up to lead the Walnut Acres PFC and then treated it like her life’s mission. This isn’t about Iris and Robyn. This is about our society. This is about our future and the collective good.  She is the change she wishes to see in the world.

So whether you spend 18 years with her or 18 minutes, you can’t help but be excited, inspired, and optimistic. My wife is the rare breed that can take the thankless effort of public service and thrive on it. She is everything that this district needs, what our children need, and what this world needs.

Thank you.

Love Thy Neighbor

As a parent, you try to teach your kids not to put too much into first impressions. Fortunately, we will always have the story of our first California neighbors, the Jacksons, to remind our girls of that.

We met Dick in the fall of 2007, shortly after we had moved from Seattle to Walnut Creek. Soon after we moved into our new home, we happened to have a visitor that came down from Seattle with her young son, who was Iris’ playmate in Seattle. Still getting reacquainted with Northern California, it was great to have old familiar faces join us for an afternoon, especially for Iris. When everyone ventured outside, Iris and her friend went over towards our neighbor’s yard where there were a bunch of wood chips. For some odd reason, they start picking them up and throwing them. It was out of character for both kids, but that’s what a new environment can do. Soon after, the owner of the house came out and said “hey there, I love children, really I do. But please, it’s a pain for me to deal with these wood chips and chasing them down and they’re really expensive. Could you ask the kids to please stop?” He wasn’t exactly the angry old man (in fact, he really couldn’t have been nicer and Iris was doing something she shouldn’t have), but needless to say, it was an inauspicious start with our neighbors. Given we never got to know many of our neighbors in Seattle and the ones we did no work very friendly, it looked like we be stuck again.

But there in lies the fallacy of first impressions.

For the next five years, Dick and Shirley were a gift to our family. They were like a free set of extra grandparents.Their patience with our girls was wonderful. Iris, who was always skeptical of other people, would always gravitate towards the Jackson house whenever we walked outside. Countless times, she would walk up the driveway and want to go inside. And the Jacksons would never refuse our need to barge in. Inevitably, Cherise, the girls, and Shirley would go in one room and Dick and I would be in another. He would offer me a beer and I’d have no choice but to accept. We talked about everything from our respective careers to the California government budget crisis to interesting things that were happening in the sports world. He shared his Idaho stories and I shared my New Jersey stories. There were times when I’d marvel at the fact that I could enjoy myself so thoroughly with a guy 30 years older than me. I can still hear that subtle drawl as we debated whether California would go declare bankruptcy (hey Dick, I told you California would bounce back🙂). I heard about what Walnut Creek was like when there were actually walnut trees here. I knew more about his kids than some of my close friends and he knew all about my dad before my dad moved out here. By the time my dad did make it out to live in California, he worshiped Dick and Shirley. The kindness and respect they’d showed him on every meeting won him over, including the story about the time he was locked out of his apartment and we weren’t home, so he went over to Dick and Shirley’s place to hang out. They took him in without flinching and from that day on, anytime Dick and Shirley came up, I can still recall my father’s thick Indian accent saying “they are both the most wonderful people. You are so lucky to have neighbors like that.” My dad was a wise man.

A few years later, we flew back to Seattle to meet up with old friends, including the ones that were visiting us when we first met Dick. The topic turned to our lives in Walnut Creek and our friend said “oh yeah, that guy next-door. What a pain he must be. ” Cherise quickly responded, “actually, no, he and his wife have been great. ” At that point, I jumped in and said “I’d say they are the greatest thing about living in Walnut Creek. They’re a big reason why we don’t even want to move.”

But eventually, we did move–and so did Dick and Shirley. We didn’t get to see Dick very much over these last couple of years, but I’m still going to miss him. I’ll miss the way he pronounced my daughter’s name “Ah-res”. I’ll miss the way we’d pass each other on the Iron Horse Trail when I was going for a long run and he was going for a long walk. I’ll miss the way he and Shirley would send subtle glances to one another in a way that only two true life partners could do. You can never predict where and how people will change your life. All you can do is be grateful for their presence and remember them when they’re gone. And Dick will never be forgotten

Thoughts & Prayers? There’s an app for that…

After the Umpqua, Oregon shootings last October, I committed myself to think about how I could take more effective role in the gun crisis. As a father that thinks about the world his girls will live in, ignoring it was unconscionable. Complaining wasn’t accomplishing anything. Trying to reason with people was difficult. After all, as I was told, guns are constitutional, guns are important part of peoples lives, guns are the last line of defense to defend your family, guns were part of their bonds with her fathers. My dad and I bonded on political conversations, which included understanding the principles upon which this country was founded (which included understanding the right to bear arms)–the same type of conversations I’ve tried to cultivate with my girls. If only we’d known that sticking a bullet into a living creature was a more effective way of learning about the Constitution. Where’s the fun in talking about stuff and healthy debate? We were a couple of chumps…

But if reasoning with gun enthusiasts wasn’t working and threatening politicians with my withholding my vote until action came about wouldn’t work, well, hey, I know tech. I’ll apply tech to help the gun crisis. So for the last several months, whenever I made a list of things to do, I added “Gun Tech” to my list. Just to think about it. How could we change things? Technology has saved us from disease. It enabled us to travel to distant lands. It has opened up new worlds. It had to be the solution here. And the ideas started coming to me. My favorite was the concept of touch ID with guns so that toddlers couldn’t accidentally set off guns. Or intruder couldn’t get the wrong gun–after all, shouldn’t a gun be as hard to access as your iPhone?  Plus, we could track who is shooting the gun maybe even turn it off remotely based on identifying a shooter or a lost gun getting into the wrong hands, as happened in the Embarcadero shooting last year. We can turn cars, lights, speakers, and millions of other devices on and off remotely, how about weapons? But then I found out that (a) someone has already thought of these types of ideas and (b) that the NRA has put a stop to some of these ideas already. I kinda lost hope. I stopped writing “Gun Tech” down. I lost…

When Orlando happened this weekend, I was neck deep in writing code for my new company and I was having a hard time concentrating. I was distracted by the fact that something like this could happen. Luckily, lawmakers had provided a major dose of “thoughts & prayers”. And that’s when it hit me. I realized I was overthinking the problem and there was an easier solution everyone could support. I could create efficiency in government, address the gun violence, and make the world a better place. And I could do so in a way that would be approved by even the strongest of second-amendment advocates. You out there in Washington DC have “Thoughts & Prayers”? Well I have an app for that…

I wrote a script that queries Twitter trending topics across the United States and seeks the phrase “shooting”. If there is a shooting as a trending topic, it automates a tweet of “My thoughts and prayers go to the victims of this senseless tragedy.” Note to members of Congress: this is legit. This ain’t the Obamacare website–this code works and I’m giving it away for free on GitHub, because that’s what we seem to do quite a bit out here in Northern California. We give cool stuff away for free. You just need to configure it to your Twitter account. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re a PC user or Mac, iOS or Android. It’s Javascript, you can stick in on an AWS server running NodeJS (no, Hillary, not your home server, please), and it’ll just keep checking for more violence every hour. It’s great, because it matches the extent of what you’ve accomplished between Sandy Hook and now, but you don’t need to risk hurting your fingers tapping away on your phone. You don’t run the risk of sticking your foot in your mouth like the Lt. Governor of Texas did. Now you can completely ignore the lives lost. As one “low-energy” candidate for President once said, “stuff happens”. Well, now it doesn’t have to distract you from another doomed vote to repeal Obamacare.

I’m not trying to trivialize the violence. I am trying to trivialize the inaction. All snark aside, I don’t expect guns banned. It’s not my thing, but I respect your right to peacefully live your life with that aspect as part of it (just as I do with the LGBT community–in fact, moreso with them as I don’t see that as a choice). But the violence won’t go away by ignoring it. My hope with this app is that lawmakers can go back to realizing that ignoring it is actually what they are doing. Forgot the acknowledgements. Either take the problem seriously or bring in someone who will. And skip the thoughts & prayers. I’ve got those covered…

Oh, and you nerds out there, no judging the elegance of my code. And Tabs>>Spaces. #SiliconValleyHBO #TeamRichard

Ferris Bueller, Nerd Edition

Iris has one week left of Elementary School and our little Cal Ripken has never missed a day of school due to sickness. But when the 5th graders were going to Six Flags and she clearly had no interest in going, I convinced Cherise that she’d need to come down with something. But we couldn’t waste the day, so I played hooky and we did Daddy-Daughter Day right. Imagine Ferris Bueller’s Day Off if Ferris and Cameron were a curious 10-year old and her nerd dad.

Following a hot chocolate & cinnamon roll breakfast at Peet’s, we drove down to Silicon Valley with stops at:

  • Facebook HQ where we walked around campus and talked about the thousands of people who make the site go for billions of people around the world.
  • Stanford and the engineering buildings to see where Google and Yahoo started (with a quick break to throw around a football and grab a Jamba Juice among the students).
  • the HP Garage that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started one of the greatest companies in the world.
  • and the Tech Innovation Museum, where we did everything from program strands of DNA to build a Mars Rover.

Unfortunately, the Computer History Museum was closed, but I think we got plenty inspiration regardless. At every stop, we’d talk about people like Mark Zuckerberg coming up with Facebook in his dorm room, Larry & Sergey in the Stanford CS Building, and the HP guys in their garage. We talked about the problems in the world and that smart people could solve them. Clean water and vaccinations in 3rd world countries. Cures that could’ve saved her grandfather’s life or could someday save ours. 3D Printing organs to use for transplants. She even got to learn about cryptography, which is what I’ve been working on for the past few months. As she put it, “I might want to be a doctor. Or I might want to be an engineer. Or maybe both.” I wouldn’t put it past you, kid.

I have to say this day was the coolest gift ever. Now, I just need to figure out what to give Iris in return…

Reflections On Giving to 100 Charities in 100 Days: The “100 For Koka” Recap

A little over six months ago, I decided to do an exercise where I would give to 100 nonprofit organizations/causes in 100 days in honor of my father. I involved my whole family and it and conveniently started with my birthday and ended with Christmas. Every day, I found a worthy cause, made a donation, wrote it up, and then went on with my day. Sometimes, I had a few day’s worth of causes in the queue. Other days, it’d be 11:30pm and I would be struggling to figure out which organization to choose. Make no mistake–this was time-consuming work. While it was done as an homage to a man I greatly admired, I also knew that it had the potential to be a profound experience on many levels. I was right.

There are a seemingly infinite number of nonprofit organizations that exist out there doing good work. For me, my intent was either to relate any selected nonprofit to personal issues, my father, or to current events. But by doing this exercise, my eyes were opened to so many things–well beyond the 100 organizations, charities, and individuals who received money from me. I easily could’ve don #200ForKoka and still have plenty of ideas left over. Meanwhile, the kind words, mail, and text that I got from people about this was both encouraging and empowering. Whether it was a recommendation on a cause or just an “atta boy”, I thank you for pushing me through this. I felt like I was in a group effort.

I originally planned to write this wrapup around New Year’s, just after the hundred days were completed. But I thought about it again and decided I wanted to wait until I had more time to reflect on my lessons. In the time since, I visited India and scattered my dads ashes in a river to mark the final chapter in his physical existence–which made some of the lessons even more powerful upon reflection. As I expected, I still feel the remnants of this effort, long after I finished it. Here are some of my takeaways…

Having Cherise and the girls involved was a good thing as it let me get multiple perspectives on the giving thing. Plus, for all the writeups I did of each cause, I never wrote a poem like Iris did when she picked the Food Bank (though I did quote Sting lyrics, so I get points for that). It was tricky to involve a 10-year-old and seven-year-old. In some ways, they were able to get a lot of lessons out of it because the organizations I chose helped open their eyes to some of the less fortunate people in the world. However, it was difficult for them to just come up with ideas on their own. With only so much context about the world and their fairly sheltered life, they only knew about so many injustices or suffering. Not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m fairly certain there’s a middle ground. I do know that explaining these inequities, injustices, or other ills of the world is a hard thing for a parent to do–because it seems to counter everything we’re teaching our kids. Play fair. Take care of each other. Don’t hurt anyone. If we did that as a society, we wouldn’t need a lot of these organizations. It reminds me of the old “Everything I needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten”. Maybe having a president that acts like a 5-year old wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Meh, scratch that…

I made sure to take the time to learn more about each organization (my blurbs in the blog and on Facebook felt like mini-book reports) and was truly inspired by some of the amazing work being done around world. But even more gratifying was taking a deeper look at the terrific work being done by my friends, either in a full-time capacity or a volunteer basis. I realize I’ve underrated how awesome these friends are. To my cousin Dulari. To my co-worker Barrett. To our friends Britt & Izumi, Raj, Sovanna, Ted, Jason, Sally, Jeff, Claudia, and others I’m likely forgetting. In other cases, I discovered very unique personal stories that were tied to recommendations that helped me see people in a whole new light. I gained a whole new respect for folks I already liked. That alone was worth the price of admission. Thank you Jill, Julie, Chris P, Mitra, Brian R, Alyson, Ahbi, Marci, Lorena, Brian M, Jean, and Stephen Colbert (who inspired the gift to the Harlem Children’s Zone & Donor’s Choose). I’m sure I’ve left people off this list, but there were a LOT of folks with a lot of great ideas.

Some donations made me angry. Some donations nearly brought me to tears. Some donations made me hopeful.

I gave to victims of gun violence. Sadly, within three months, I had multiple opportunities to support victims of mass shootings–which prompted me to give the the Brady Campaign against Gun Violence.

I gave to multiple organizations to promote coding skills to underrepresented groups–because only good can come from that.

I gave to Indian organizations multiple times. In addition to being the right thing to do, it was a definitely hat tip to my Dad.

There is something empowering about the gift of giving. I felt like I was making a difference, showing my support, and actually affecting the world with the money I’ve made (or in this case, the money my dad left). I felt the way I feel when I vote in a democratic process, as if even though my part is so small, I can be a part of the solution.

The lone drawback: my snail mail is inundated with the request for more money. I’m not going to lie: this may be the worst part of giving. I feel like my donations are being spent on postage. I was also dumb enough to give my phone number in some cases, which gets me multiple calls every week from people thanking me and wanting to know how much they can put me down for this year. Honestly, this is hands-down, the worst part of giving. Truth be told, I will probably still give to many of the organizations again. I just wish they knew that the mails make me less likely to do so, not more likely. Still, I understand that the mails must work or they wouldn’t do it–just like the e-mail of that poor Nigerian uncle who needs some cash.

A good friend asked if the hundred days was helpful in getting closure with the loss of my dad. It was a good question, but as I thought about it, I realize that this had nothing to do with closure. In fact, quite the opposite. Giving in this way has opened the door to a new me. It has set the tone for the rest of my life and the way I want to honor my father. Random acts of kindness and generosity. Being more mindful of the plight of others. Reading the news and being more empathetic to the people affected. I’ve even started tipping more had restaurants, all in recognition of my dad’s earnest desire to help. Of course, that last part is comical given what an atrocious tipper he was :-).

It takes a village to raise a middle-aged man. To those that lent your ideas, thoughts, support, encouragement, and inspiration, thanks for helping me prove a time of loss can be a time of growth.

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