Books review – 2022 Q1

The new year started with some inglorious novels before the quarter ending in a pretty good one.


The Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A YA (young adult, that is, primarily meant for teenagers) novel, this book was “recommended” by a few 8th graders as one of the great books they had ever read. I laud Adeyemi in trying to create a whole new world with magical people. There are also some obvious references racial injustices in real life and young readers would find this topical. But as an adult looking to read some good literary fiction, this isn’t it.

Recommendation: Pass, if you’re an adult. Read, if you’re a teenager or YA.


Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Coming critically acclaimed and with great reviews, I had some good expectations from this book. Alas, this comes across as pseudo-intellectual literary musings that someone who graduated from Harvard writes to impress their fellow classmates. Three novellas explore obvious asymmetries and dynamics between men/women, young/old, powerful/powerless, but without an underlying thread connecting them all. This book could have been so much more and Halliday’s potential is undeniable.

Recommendation: Pass


Happiness by Aminatta Forna

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A Ghanian psychiatrist collides, literally and figuratively, with an American zoologist on a London bridge. The chance encounter forms the backdrop of Forna’s exquisite work on love and fate. Forna, of Scottish and Sierra Leonean descent, has a marked sense of conveying emotions with minimal words. Also, a good deal to learn about coyotes and foxes in urban settings.

Recommendation: Definite read


Books read in 2022 Q1: 3

Total books read in 2022: 3

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Books Reviews – 2021 Q4

Started off with a lame novel but read some great ones in this quarter. I ended up reading 20 books this year!


The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

A prequel to “The Pillars of the Earth” trilogy, this novel is typical Follett. Set in the Dark Ages, Follett forges ahead (or backward, since this a prequel?) with his usual bombastic style of action and dialogues, with no real ruminations by the protagonists except the very obvious ones. This book was a reminder that “best selling” authors such as Follett are usually crap.

Recommendation: Definite pass.


A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Majumdar grew up in Kolkata and graduated from Harvard …but there is no mention of her education before Harvard. Written in the English style that is colloquially spoken by a lot of Bengalis in Kolkata, this debut novel takes a searing take on the nationalistic fervor that has gripped the country.

Recommendation: Read only if you have nothing better at hand. Maybe I’m being harsh. Read it. Especially if you’re Indian/Bengali.


The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Serpell is Zambian by birth and now lives in California and has taught at UC, Berkeley. Epic, multigenerational novel with roots going back to early 20th century Italy, England, and India but all culminating in the near future Zambia. “Speculative history” (a genre I wasn’t aware of till I read this book) is what NPR calls this 2020 Arthur C. Clarke (best science fiction) winning novel.

Recommendation: Must read. There is less science fiction in the book than you’d think.


Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A short-ish novel about a grandmother of a big family wondering how she ended up helming the family business of renting out their “historic” family home in Baltimore for events. I couldn’t really get into the book though it wasn’t a bad read. This was made into a movie in 2004 starring

Recommendation: Pass.


Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

With the backdrop of 80s Glasgow and its suburbs that is as bleak as any third world city, Stuart paints a horrifyingly detailed picture of what alcoholism can do to a family. Stuart won the 2020 Booker Prize for this debut novel.

Recommendation: Read, but expect to be pulled down low into your emotional reserve.


Books read in 2021 Q4: 5

Total books read in 2021: 20

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Books review – 2021 Q3

Ended the quarter with a fantastic novel. In addition to the ones listed below, had started “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo but could not get past the style of writing and stopped after a couple of pages.


The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

The second book of the Child 44 trilogy, this book picks up three years from the end of the last, and delves into the lives of Leo Demidov and family. Full of action and …..that’s it. It’s so jam packed with action, and no reflection whatsoever, that it seems I was reading a Hollywood blockbuster. I’m seriously debating whether to read the third book.

Side note: because of summer, and everything outdoorsy that goes along with it, it took me the middle of August to finish this as first book for the quarter.


The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

Rating: 0.5 out of 5.

This novella deals with loss and grief in an ephemeral and surreal way that I couldn’t really wrap my head around. Could not get into the book and read it as a chore. My recommendation: pass.


Night Boat to Tangiers by Kevin Barry

Rating: 2 out of 5.

This book came highly recommended from various review outlets but was kind of a let down for me. Two old friends who have spent their lives in the illegal drug business, sit at the Spanish port of Algeciras and reminisces through their past lives and families and how things could perhaps be different. I found the prose to be static, evoking little empathy. Big events are brush stroked in a short, single sentence. Barry is an acclaimed writer and makes astute observations, which really lights up from time to time. My recommendation: pass.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is, at once, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read and also one of the most brilliant books I’ve read. I’ve seen this been called “misery porn” by some and to an extent, it is; but that is not the defining feature of this book. With over 800 pages, I read the paper back, this is a bulky book: literally and figuratively. The topics and characters that Yanagihara deals with will stay with you days and possibly in your dreams/nightmares. Though the book follows the life of 4 male friends from their college days, there is one lead and a supporting lead, and two sort of extras.

Recommendation: Definite read, but only if your head is in the right space. This book will screw with you.


Books read in 2021 Q3: 4

Total books read in 2021: 15

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Books review – 2021 Q2

Two very different kind of books to start this quarter. A couple of similar themed books to end it.


Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize with this novel centered around the titular character, a retired school teacher in Maine. There are 13 short, loosely interconnected stories, but not in a sequential manner with respect to chronology or story telling. Each of these stories goes into depth of an episode of some character, sometimes Olive, in the town. Sad, but not a tear jerker, in a very relatable way, this novel is not for someone in a funk. Highly recommend for everyone else.


The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Quintessential Scandinavian thriller by the half-English half-Swedish Smith. I literally started and finished this novel in one single day, which I don’t think have ever happened in my life! This is a short-ish novel and a page turner and I had a bit of time on my hands. Dark, cold, and full of intrigue, this novel is highly recommended if you like thrillers. I had not heard about Smith before I happened to chance upon this novel. Seems like he is known for “Child 44” trilogy. That’s next on my reading list.


The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Set in post WWI London, this novel could have been a taut book but Waters decided to stretch the hell out of this and ends up being a laborious read of over 500 pages, about 200 pages longer than it really needed to be. Waters does not believe in sparing us details, and uses her words and sentences expansively. Delving into topics that were certain to be taboo at that time, the characters are real enough but their inner monologues run around in circles. Not a recommended read unless you have plenty of time and patience.


Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Rating: 1 out of 5.

After reading the short stories collection “Florida” by Groff, I was willing to give her another shot. But boy, did this disappoint. Her style of short, at times painfully short, staccato sentences which suited short stories falls really flat over 390 pages of this novel. The content seems contrived failing to soar even after repeated attempts to shock the reader into another manipulated turn. I’m banishing Groff to the list of writers I’ve going to avoid.


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A 2017 YA (young adult) novel about a black teenaged girl witnessing a white cop shooting a black teenaged boy, and how her life changes. Compelling, powerful, and sort of the precursor to the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement that became mainstream in 2020. This was also made into a movie in 2018. Recommended read for everyone especially anyone living in America.


Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Inspired by The Farm above, I dove into the first book by Smith. Set in Stalin’s USSR, where the winters are brutal but secret police are far more so, Smith creates the “first” serial killer in Communist regime, which leaders are quick to dust under carpet as it vilifies their agenda of no crime under Communism. I have the second and third books of the trilogy and should be done by the next quarter. Good read; recommend.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Published in 2015, this is non-fiction work, written by Coates as a letter to his then teenaged son. Raw, powerful, and mincing no words, Coates lay bare the bedrock idea of being Black in America. I’m still not sure how to process this book. I leave you with this review from The Guardian. If you are not Black read because you need to be shocked; if you are black, I suppose you’d have read this already.


Books read in 2021 Q2: 7

Total books read in 2021: 11 (already surpassing the 7 from whole of last year)

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Books review – 2021 Q1

The year kicked off great with two fantastic books, back to back.


In the Country by Mia Alvar

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is Alvar’s first book. She is a is a Filipino-American writer based in New York. Writing about ordinary Filipinos in Philippines and around the world, leading normal but extraordinary lives, this collection of short stories is a tour de force. Alvar has an incredible eye to detail and an uncanny ability to delve into topics that few would. She won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, awarded to exceptional debut novel, in 2016. Must read for everyone, especially anyone who has ever moved to different country.


The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This very readable historical fiction, maintaining a solemnity and carefreeness with equal magnitude, flowing like a mammoth river. We discover the various nooks, corners, and turns of this river at a dis-contiguous narrative and each discovery is a joy. Allende is an avid storyteller and she writes without too much frill. Her characters are real though tend to be a bit enigmatic. Highly recommend.


Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane

Rating: 1 out of 5.

I mainly selected this collection of short stories as a) This is set in Montana, “Big Sky Country” and I wanted to read something based in the state, b) McGuan is extolled by all sundry as a classical exponent of Montana’s literary scene. Boy, was I disappointed. Maybe because McGuane at 81 is past the point of giving any fucks about what these stories are trying to tell. There are ample signs of literary genius – astute observation, incredible word plays – but most of them taper off to either the improbable or the stretched or the unreal or, the worst, lazy abrupt endings. Not recommend.


The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (translated to English by Charlotte Collins)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Wells is German and the name of the original book is “Vom Ende der Einsamkeit”. The story revolves around three siblings whose parents die before they turn teenagers. This catastrophic event shapes their lives and their relationships, among each other and with the world. Bitter sweet novel but Wells is determined to tug at each individual, sinewy strings in your heart. Read only if you have the emotional equilibrium to withstand that.


Books read in 2021 Q1: 4

Total books read in 2021: 4

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Sports – following and watching

March 11, 2020 was a seminal moment in professional sports.

Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19.

I did not know about Gobert’s existence prior to that day. I knew about the Utah Jazz team. I wasn’t really into basketball and NBA.

It was what happened after the positive test.

The NBA shutdown its league on Mar 11. The NHL suspended its league on Mar 12. The English Premier League stopped on Mar 13. The summer Olympics to be held in Tokyo were postponed to 2021 and so was the UEFA Euro competition. Professional sports, and viewing it on TV, came a grinding, screeching halt across the globe.

And life for Brinda and me was not the same anymore.

We have always been a sports watching family. Ok, let’s rephrase that last sentence a bit.

I was the primary individual who followed and watched most sports. My list (in descending order of preference): Soccer, Football, Cricket, Baseball, Basketball, (Ice) Hockey, Golf. I can, and have, spent hours watching sports on TV.

Vivian’s only watches when the Green Bay Packers play.

Brinda, till before the pandemic, was just more of a football “tolerator” and sometime soccer watcher. She didn’t mind snuggling up with me from time to time but didn’t really have the patience to sit through and follow the game.

But all changed when we lost any and all sports for over 3 months. The English Premier League started back on Jun 17, one of the earliest to restart. Sports in the US had to wait for almost another month to get back into the fields and courts. MLB started on Jul 23, NBA started on Jul 30, NHL on Aug 1. (NFL season starts in the fall and they did on Sep 10, without delay, though the there was no pre-season games).

When sports started back up again, it was a veritable smorgasbord of offering. We had days, and nights, of 3-4 major sports being played at the same time. Brinda really got into sports. We would watch baseball or basketball, and sometimes hockey, almost every evening. She’d keep asking me which games were on for later in the day!

And when football started, Brinda really got into it. Besides the ones featuring Vikings and Packers, she started watching all the other games with me. She was looking forward to Sunday night and Monday night games (also to do with the fact that she could watch TV in the evenings!). After much deliberations she settled on Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers as her two favourite teams – both have a big cat as their logo and teal in their uniform!

She now know all the 32 NFL teams and their names!

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Books reviews 2020

Managed to read quite a few books last year, after a number of years of very little to almost no reading.

Here’s the details, my rating, and quick blurb on why I liked it. Most of these books have featured in “best books of the year” from various publications such NYT, Atlantic, Washington Post, and Guardian. So, all of these books are supposed to be good books, in the literary sense, but not all were best sellers.

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The book rating scale that I’ll use:

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Total books read in 2020: 7

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All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Set in NOLA about a dysfunctional family with manipulative and abusive father, who on his deathbed unleashes even more chaos. Short-ish novel. Sharp, short, staccato sentences. Like the style, which at times might seem pointless and meandering. Recommend read for older adults.

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The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

Rating: 5 out of 5.

American classic set in 1965 about teens and young adults from a rough neighborhood. Recommend read for everyone, certainly young adults.

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The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Patchett is one of my favorites authors (read State of Wonder, if you haven’t!) though this novel doesn’t live up to her standard and is way longer than it needed to be, with an unsatisfying ending. Follows the life a young woman for a decade and half. The main protagonist is strong and defiant but I couldn’t find the source of the cold heartedness.

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The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

Rating: 2 out of 5.

A blitheringly long novel combining ancient Greek mythology, fantasy, and hedonism of today, this novel is critically acclaimed by all. I ploughed through it but the actions of Antiochus still rattles me.

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Florida by Lauren Groff

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A collection of short stories, with either characters or setting in, you guessed it, Florida. Groff has an observant eye and a great, individualistic writing hand. The last story though, way too long and without point. Recommend read.

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Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A fascinating novel marrying astro-physics, English literature, and subtle but deep sense of loss – one of most mentally invigorating books I’ve read in a long time. Recommend read for adults, especially, young women who think science is not for them.

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The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A collection of (not short) stories, spanning generations in USSR/Russia, specifically, the almost comical hell-scape of Kirovsk – a mining town in Siberia – bound together by a motley crew of characters, and their lineage. Marra has a unique and uncanny knack of often flipping innocuous sentences into visceral epithets of real life drudgery.

(I started this book in 2020 but finished it in the first week of 2021)

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There were some books that I started but couldn’t quite get into, even after plowing on for about 50 pages or so. All of these are very critically acclaimed as well. Just that it didn’t jive with me, with reasons ranging from from style of writing that I couldn’t care less for to grandiose novel that I didn’t quite want to delve into.

These are: The Sellout by Paul Beatty, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

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Inauguration 2021

January 20 this year was sweet. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, closing the chapter on the worst presidency in the history of this country.

It was a bit sweeter at our household. You see, this is the first inauguration that Brinda actually knows anything about. She will most likely remember this well. As it so happens, with the pandemic still on, her school was in distance learning mode on Inauguration day. So, not only was she aware of what going on, unlike other years where she probably would have been in school, she was at home and watching it live on TV!

And what a sight to behold. The first female Vice President. The first Indian-American, Black VP. Multiple glass ceilings not just broken, but demolished in a hammer blow.

A lot of emotions swelled up in me and I think the enormity and solemnity of the moment will remain with Brinda, even though she does not understand the magnitude of the event right now.

(For the uninitiated, POTUS is the President of the United States; Kamala = Lotus in Bengali/Hindi)

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2020-21 Test series in Australia: India 2-1

I had wanted to write after the last series win in Australia in 2018-19 but did not get around to it. That was a monumental achievement: India’s first ever Test win in Australia. I did not think another overseas win would surpass the peak from 2 years ago. But this series, with the odds stacked overwhelmingly in favour of the hosts, turned out to be an even better series, and a more satisfying win.

Due to the time difference and the fact the series played right over the holiday season, I was able to watch most of the days for the 4 matches. Games started at 5:30 pm my local time and test cricket was in prime-time! Vivian and Brinda were also there with me, at least till their bedtimes!

After the first test atrocity of Adelaide, where India’s 2nd innings folded for 36, and Kohli set to depart, I would have settled for a 0-4 whitewash, sans further such humiliation.

Rahane’s magical century lifted the team to a memorable win in Melbourne. That was the turning point. The team started to get some sort of belief in themselves, with Captain Cool leading the way.

The sleight of hand at Sydney where team India escaped a draw, with valiant efforts by the bruised and battered duo of Ashwin and Vihari, paved to way to the grand finale.

Boom at Brisbane. Glorious Gabba. Call it what you may. Where India had never won and Australia had not lost since 1988, a 32-match unbeaten streak. India had a severely depleted squad due to injuries. I was telling my friends that I’ll be happy if India took the match into the fourth day!

Consider this: India’s first choice fast bowlers of Bumrah, Shami, Ishant, Umesh were all gone. Both the top spinners, Ashwin and Jadeja, were gone too.

The 11 had the following bowlers: Md. Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur, T Natarajan, and Washington Sundar.

Together, they had played an aggregate of 4 tests before the Gabba game and had taken 6 wickets between them. Australia’s bowlers boasted numbers of 246 matches and 1,033 wickets.

A big a chasm as you’ll ever find in the history of sports, not just cricket.

But the severe underdogs somehow prevailed. Here is a good piece by Sambit Bal.

I have a few theories.

Mainly, 3 reasons to answer the why and how.

  1. India’s young ones were not scarred like teams of past by the inevitable capitulation to Australia, in Australia. Except for Rahane, Pujara, and Pant, most of the batsmen and the bowlers were not only playing in Australia for the first time, but playing test cricket for the first time! (read about the backstories of the young guns at the end of this post)*
  2. India’s second, or even third, string players were better equipped to deal with the conditions. The more A team games have seemingly helped to deepen the pool of players who are on the verge of taking the next step.
  3. India’s bowlers, collectively, were actually better than their Australian counterparts, both in terms of bowling and batting!

Here are some stats to support point #3.

Australia used 10 top-7 batsmen (including wicket keeper) in the series. In all they scored 1,659 runs. They used only 4 bowlers in the entire series and they scored 255 runs.

Similarly, India used 10 top-6 batsmen in the series. Top-6 as they played 5 bowlers in all the matches. Together the batsmen (and wicketkeeper) scored 1,446 runs. In contrast to Australia though, India employed 10 bowlers in the series. Together they contributed 370 runs.

Australia’s recognized batsmen scored more runs than India’s top order but India’s bowlers scored more runs than Australia’s bowlers. That was a crucial difference. The Indian bowlers almost made up for the runs deficit by the batsmen. Also, Australia’s top order score was bolstered by mainly Smith and Labuschagne but for India there were 4 almost equal contributors (Pant, Pujara, Rahane, Gill).

Here’s the interesting part, bowling.

The 4 Australian specialist bowlers took 58 wickets. Green was the allrounder but failed to pick any wickets in 44 overs.

India 10 Indian bowlers took 65 wickets.

Obviously, to win 2-1 the bowlers need to take more wickets than the other team. Right.

Here’s where it gets intersting.

Cummins and Hazelwood account for 38 wickets with averages of 20 and 19 respectively. Fantastic.

Starc and Lyon got 20 and averaged over 40 and 55. Pathetic.

Whereas, India’s top 5 bowlers took 50 wickets with averages of all less than 30.

This is where the war was won. India’s overall bowling attack was, simply put, better than Australia’s attack.

So, the Indian bowlers not only scored runs they were just better bowlers as well.

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*From not verified sources

T Natarajan is the son of a loom worker who had no money for luxuries like cricket gear and shoes. For many years, Natarajan had to think a hundred times before investing in new shoes. His mother cried when she saw him representing India on TV. His wife gave birth to their daughter when Natarajan was playing IPL in UAE. He hasn’t even seen her yet because he went straight to Australia in a bio bubble.

Shardul Thakur battled obesity to play for Mumbai and thereafter IPL. No less than Sachin Tendulkar advised him to lose weight for a great cricketing career ahead of him.

Md. Siraj rose to become India’s new ball bowler despite being born to a poor rickshaw driver. His father died and he couldn’t perform his last rites as he was in Australia on national duty.

Washington Sundar’s father – Sundar, was a talented cricketer who was sponsored by his rich neighbour throughout his local cricketing life. The neigbour’s name was Washington. The man passed away just before Sundar’s second son was born. Sundar named his son Washington as a tribute to his benefactor.

Navdeep Saini’s father was a government driver and could not afford expensive cricket coaching for his son. So Saini played exhibition matches on tennis ball at Rs.300 a match to fund his dreams.

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Rural Minnesota (2020)

For about 3 weeks at the end of this summer, I got to see a lot of different vistas of rural Minnesota. Working for Census 2020, I drove literally few thousand miles deep into the heartland.

Wait. What?

Ok. Rewind.

Well, hello world!

It’s been some time since I actually wrote a post about, you know, my life. Let’s see. Got my masters degree that landed a job that enabled (mandated!) me to fly back and forth, on a weekly basis. Left that job. Took up teaching/tutoring. Also making myself involved deeply into issues that is close to my heart: education, sports coaching, community involvement, grass roots politics, social issues.

Mostly caught up. Right then.

I applied for the Census job in the beginning of 2020. Then the pandemic happened and everything was quiet for months. Radio silence. At the end of July got notified that the work would start by August. And so it began. My role in the Census was that of an enumerator: basically, a part of a few hundred thousand people who knock on doors of as yet unresponsive addresses throughout the country; to reach, count, and get demographic information of every single person living in the country.

Initially, I was going out to apartment complexes in my city. This is where I, being a POC, had a lot to offer. Just my mere appearance made a lot of the folks – folks who are reticent to talk about themselves for the fear of being hauled off to local law enforcement agencies or federal immigration services – a bit relaxed so that we could complete the Census survey. I knew that the work is important with real long term implications but I was not really digging it.

By mid-September most of the urban areas were done. Then started a period of about 3 weeks where I really enjoyed the work. I volunteered, and then was given list of addresses in southern Minnesota. Starting from the Red Wing and Winona to the East, Rochester and Owatonna to the South, to Belle Plain and New Prague to the West – I covered a big swath of area and a lot of miles.

These were the best days of late summer! Driving through winding rural roads, encountering surprising vistas at different curves in the road, talking to people I would have otherwise had no chance to meeting.

The cornfields (acres and acres of them), the lakes (this is of course the land of 10-thousand lakes, Minnesota speak for 11,842), the clear blue skies, the sunsets, the cottony clouds, the gently rolling hills, the livestock. I could do this job for a long time. As it happened, the Census work wrapped up by mid October and we are done for 10 more years.

Here is the link to some captures from my adventures on the road.

Categories: It only happens in Minnesota, Life, Loves | 1 Comment

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