Nothing: Part 21

My thoughts are so desultory that it would be a crime to title this post anything but “nothing”.  There’s nothing here that could be knitted into a coherent piece of writing.

Last night, as I was attempting to get on with the thing we call sleeping I was trying to pinpoint the time that defined my overriding lack of ambition.  The thoughts raced back down memory lane only to stop at the waddling walk out of the train station, on the clear and crisp morning of September 11th, 2001.  I was heavy with child, she was due to enter the world sometime in mid-October.  She was patient in there except for the occasional kick just to remind me that there was another person inside me. 

I did need that kicked reminder because all I could think about during the weeks leading up to that day were the dismal renewal rates and plummeting circulation revenues at Teen People magazine.  I spent several hours at my desk simulating data that would reflect the best case scenarios for this now defunct teen magazine.  The marketers fed me ambitious projections based on the results that price changes would bring, the lifts they expected in circulation from offering premiums of various kinds, the revenue gains they expected to see as a result of commission and remittance negotiations with third party agents. 

There was a sense of hope that if a Maybelline nail polish or lipstick was offered up as an incentive then parents of teenage children would respond toute suite to the renewal notices that they received from the publisher.  But no matter how many times I crunched the numbers, in my very focused number crunching role, I couldn’t come up with a scenario that made all my bosses happy.  My preoccupation with this problem was complete.  Even if I knew that the data modeling and simulation results were only as good as the data that was being modeled I felt as though I was letting everyone down by not giving them the results they were hankering to see. 

We were still a few years away from realizing that the part of the brain that makes teens open up renewal notices and respond to such notices 7 or 8 issues before their subscription was to expire, hadn’t yet developed.  Publishers were still struggling to telepathically convince adult consumers to renew their subscriptions “at birth”!

Just as the caffeine was kicking in to make me ponder this problem anew, there was news of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers.  There were people wondering if it was a bizarre accident while I casually uttered that it was probably Osama. 

Suddenly renewal rates, payment rates, cancellation rates, subscription orders received per week, seemed as meaningless as lint or dust bunnies in unswept corners of a home.  Nothing mattered.  Or rather, it took something of this magnitude to make us see what really mattered. 

All I could think of was my baby and my condition.  New York City was cut off from everywhere else.  I wanted to get home.  My gentle, solicitous boss wanted to see me to safety even as her mind was trying to deal with her husband’s, NYC firefighter’s, first responder status.  She was escorting me to the train station and asking every firefighter she saw along the way what they knew, specifically about Engine 23.  He never made it out.  There were ash covered people everywhere and cell phones weren’t working for a very long time.

I got home after several hours of stressful waiting and worrying as my feet swelled beyond recognition.

My hypertension ensured an early entry into the world and exit from the womb for my Anoushka.

That’s the walk I take down memory lane.  That’s where it takes me when I want to know what changed, why I see nothing but endless ennui ahead of me.  Why the road taken is devoid of all joy, all meaning, and is a one way street to a mindless, meaningless, unimportant and unmemorable destination. 

In my industry it is possible to get so wrapped up in things like response rates, payment rates, renewal rates, cover lines that would draw consumers to the newsstand.  So much hair-splitting that can lead to so much hair pulling.  As a consumer, when I am near a newsstand I make a beeline for the magazines I like to read.  What they said on their covers doesn’t matter to me at all.  And it doesn’t matter what the covers of the magazines I don’t read say if I am not interested in their content.  Still these are fields where subliminal messages works, there are deeper psychologies at play and responses are always measured and tracked.  There are several levels of skills and skillsets involved in all circulation activities.  Sometimes people even work through the night and sleep in their offices.  And yet, when we meet people out of our work circles it is hard to explain what we do.  Their eyes light up at first with the green light of envy at being in the presence of someone who works at a glamorous magazine.  And then they can’t wait to get away from you when they find out you are not an editor or a publisher that you are just a very tiny piece of the puzzle.  A piece of the puzzle that is innocuous enough until the numbers that circulators guarantee to their advertisers isn’t met.  Then circulators suddenly become the cynosure of all eyes.

People so callously lumped in the category of “planners” in an industry that may soon be extinct don’t really earn minor or major immortality.  And if “immortality” is a goal that the seers and saints of our generation would find childish and pointless, then so be it.  I need a shining horizon to which I can walk unencumbered, with as many degrees of freedom as possible.

I was very interested in a steady upward motion for my career until September 11.  I wanted to crash out of glass ceilings, I wanted to be seen as someone that had to be watched and feted.  I was convinced that the door of opportunities was wide open and a red carpet was laid out for me.  I kept fighting for opportunities.  Some recruiter was even told about my “belligerence” in a work environment.  I fought for promotions, I railed against perceived injustice, I always made sure I got my due. 

There’s none of that now.  Now I feel like a machine.  I am a very efficient, well-oiled, rather an “Extraordinary Machine” as in Fiona Apple’s lovely song, especially the words “be kind to me/or treat me mean/I’ll make the most of it I’m an extraordinary machine”.  But I am a cog in a wheel that’s dragging a dinosaur on a respirator to an inevitable extinction. I’ll keep doing it well because that’s how my gears now mesh and I’ll keep meeting all expectations.  That’s what my Mom would say, if I ever called her for comfort or for a pep talk, “Karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana…” etc, so keep plugging away because this is it, at this point in time, this is it.  

This time I’ve constructed my prison walls in lead.  There are student loans to be paid off over an entire lifetime, there’s a mortgage, there are health benefits tied to steady jobs, there’s a shaky economy to deal with and last but not least there is that element of hoisting oneself on one’s own petard, or hacking away at the very branch one is sitting on every time the next big must-haves roll around in the marketplace.

That sounds rather sad, but I don’t know if sad is the word for it.  It is just a view from this vantage point from this bedroom, in this house, on this quiet street, on a quiet and rainy Sunday on April 24th, 2010. 

People love to say this too shall pass, for want of better words to say to someone whose despondence appears contagious.  And most things do pass, if a course of study, like an MBA or a PhD, seems endlessly frustrating it passes and then there’s a career to look forward to, illnesses pass, relationships improve, we learn and grow and evolve and things that bothered us before just don’t bother us anymore.  Even if we felt we loved someone with all our heart and would never recover if we lost their love, we find ourselves not caring anymore after the passage of some time. 

We leave so many boxes behind. We break through so many of the prisons we create for ourselves during a lifetime.  We keep finding newer, better, shinier prisons with thicker walls until we build one we can’t break.

So this is it, I sit here wondering what else can be done in the next twenty five years? Is there enough time to change course? And what direction? What happened to the person inside who thought that we arrived here with just a sketchy outline of the things to come, that we filled in all our own details, added color, texture and dimension? Why do I now feel so resigned, so paralyzed and so imprisoned, so accepting of a rigidly defined kismet?

For anyone who reads this, have you ever seen a bigger piece of nothing? This is all as meaningless as renewal rates of magazine subscriptions in the grander scheme of things where things like Darfur, cancer, AIDS, Haiti and Eyjafjallajokull exist. 


  1. It's the solid, real things that ought to be mulled over that come out sounding so dismal, as is usually the case. Yet there are islands visible from within the see-through walls of our own 'prisons'..that none may penetrate. Sometimes these islands are simply many such prisons stacked up against one a glide reflexion straight out of an MC Escher sketch, the rocks and islands and prisons toy with our minds to the point that they make us suitably numb. We cannot tell anymore if we are coming or going, but we live to tell the tale of this muddle. You're right, never has there been a bigger slice of nothing. But if nothing compares, then it must be quite something 🙂 More power to your pen and all the profound thoughts that it strings together.

  2. You cannot call this piece a "Nothing". It is way too meaningful for that.

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