The World As You Don’t Know It

After my daily dose of news snippets I was thinking about how potentially massive change in how we live and how we see things, is evident in little bits of news.  In the last few days we heard about Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer all making the decision to leave network television.  Is it network fatigue or is it a realization that they could do so much more with a crack at personal branding?

 The Katie Couric Show, The Matt Lauer Show, these are all real possibilities and for these people, if they choose to go for these personal branding opportunities, success is more likely than not.  In a world where the distinction between varying degrees of celebrity is fast blurring, people like news anchors suffer the possibility of extinction and redundancy if they don’t take some steps to underscore their ability to command an audience.
Along similar lines, not much of a digression at all, we hear about CNN ratings slipping because “Breaking News” doesn’t bring in viewers anymore.  It has been several years since I tuned into a channel that brings breaking news because by the time they break the news it has already been broken by citizen journalists and microbloggers.  No sooner has an event happened that tells me all about it…within seconds of it happening.  
Then there are newspapers, the news about newspapers these days is about them finding ways to adapt.  There’s the New York Times pay wall, they won’t be giving it away anymore and there is no reason for them to do so.  They have enough equity in their name, enough followers of their brand of long form journalism, there are enough of us out there who would rather pay what NYT wants to charge than be deprived of reading what they have to say.  Most of the top newspapers – The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The LA Times – are all in the same boat and they need to ride this wave with a certain degree of panache and equanimity about the fast moving, shifting and often alarming quicksand nature of events in our times.
 USA Today, another major newspaper in the news today is debating whether they want to pay bonuses on the basis of “page views”.  That’s another example of a dawning realization that “what” is being written is about to take a backseat to “how many” read it and “who” wrote it.  Perhaps this was always true to some extent.  Success in media cannot be expected if the “what” ever got sacrificed in its entirety.  However, chances are, that something immensely readable could vanish without a trace if enough people haven’t “liked” it, “shared” it, “recommended” it or “”Digg’d” it.
Sometimes one has to re-state the obvious, if only as a form of exclamation: the world is changing.  Say “Duh” if you want to, but it is.  We can nod as though we understand it is changing.  We can make it a topic of conversation at the cocktail hour and offer up our own examples of the ways in which it is changing: little children adept at treating smartphones as an extension of their developing brains or their fifth appendages, governments being toppled over because people feel more empowered than they ever have before, a YouTube video made by the mayor of a small town in north eastern Japan getting him an unprecedented wave of concern and real if not physical support, making him feel like he isn’t alone in this tragic world, free and abundant open source applications digitizing people to their heart’s content, people buying from each other instead of from big corporations and more…profit motive? What’s that? It’s en route to being passé when there are an unbelievable number of people who care more about the impact they are making; the magnitude of their impact, their crater-creation ability rather than dollars and cents, Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame would be such an example.
Julian Assange is a good segue into one final thought about our legal institutions.   A professor of law, who is memorable to me for his insistence on being called a doctor of jurisprudence, drummed into us the principle of stare decisis.  The principle whereby judges are expected to respect the precedents established by prior decisions.  He told us that our entire legal system is based on precedents.  Just think of lawyers quoting prior cases in every argument they make.
 What happens when precedents don’t exist? If most of our lives will be led entangled in the world wide web of pleasure, pain and intrigue then won’t all our crimes be committed in this same world?  Where would they find those precedents? They would set new precedents, wouldn’t they?  Hard to imagine those ancient Supreme Court justices all up to speed on this, but I suppose they soon will be!  
In a few years this world will  be unrecognizably better for those of us who call ourselves optimists and who believe all change is good, who are not alarmed by it; the new-utopians some call us.  But it could be a very scary for the rest of us.

Places – 3

Earlier this week I was coming back through the lobby of my office building with the lunch I had just purchased in one hand, the other hand reaching in to find the electronic card that would let me in through the security turnstiles, when my boss, heading out to buy his own lunch appeared in my peripheral vision, his hand raised in a gesture demanding a high five.  I returned the gesture, trying to make it look as natural as possible given my discomfort with all high five and fist bump types of actions.  A few seconds ticked away during the process leaving nothing but a sense of absurdity in their wake.

A gesture of camaraderie such as the one noted above would have made so much more sense with anyone else.  In this case I just proceeded to the elevator with an expression of derisive mirth as I thought about all the stresses from just a few months ago, nights of lost sleep, expressions of lament to anyone who would care to listen, getting nauseous at the “this too shall pass” panacea that listeners offered.  All a distant memory now.  Not because these moments passed but because they became irrelevant.  How I felt a few months ago about the events that transpired was absurd, the events themselves were absurd and the way things stand now underscore absurdity encore because they don’t appear to have followed from anything that preceded them.  Context appears to be as fungible and perishable as bananas on a supermarket shelf.

Our memories define us and one would assume how we behave today has some relationship to how we felt the day before, or what we did the day before, or what was done to us the day before, but that is so rarely the case.   We look for themes, we yearn to impose an ex-post narrative upon the scatter diagram within the Cartesian coordinates of our lives.  But if there is a pattern it is stretched on a canvas so grand in scale that we can’t possibly discern it during our short lifetimes.

Take the cauliflower leaf for instance, the outline of which was being traced by my dad on graph paper, on a day when I had accompanied him to his office.  This was when he was working at Sabour Agricultural College in a place called Sabour, the back of the beyond of backward Bihar; not even remotely comparable to the whiteness of Canada or the bluish green Pacific charm of Hawaii.  I can’t recall if Sabour was a village or a town or just something in between.  We lived there for a couple of years.  I was six years old and my brother was three.  I was somewhat fond of the place.  I never forgot the seven or eight mango trees around the house, the other families with kids my age all living in close proximity, the parks, the gardens.  It was a carefree time for a six year old.

What could be better than eating mangoes by the bucket and romping around wild? But in retrospect I sense it was a dark phase for my parents who had returned to India after six years of being in the United States.  Sketching the outlines of a cauliflower leaf on graph paper isn’t something that a research scientist, used to working with state of the art electron microscope technology of those times, did.  It was random, it was absurd and I can’t understand how it helped along the general narrative of our lives.  Ranipur and Kumaitha to Honolulu and Ottawa and then a place like Sabour makes it all look so random and so lacking in any grand design, just like the high fiving moment with my boss during a senseless filler moment of the day. But these interstitial phases of our lives, when we are waiting and wondering if something better will ever come along, often cause our biggest miseries.

We shared our living quarters with another family at Sabour.  It was a type of duplex with a large shared courtyard.  The lady on the other side was well settled in the life of Sabour and directed some taunts toward my mom who insisted that her two babies would never do any growing up in that godforsaken place.  She insisted that we would be out of there soon and that my brother and I would not forget our English and adopt the slow-as-molasses Bihari Hindi drawl of that region.  She was quite alarmed at the prospect of that happening!

In retrospect these were just two years of our lives but the two years must have felt like an eternity of miseries and worries to them at that time, a time when as a young couple with two young children, they were at the peak of their worries about what the future held and how they could either mold it and shape it or let it rest, contented or resigned to “fate”.

Then out of the blue an opportunity materialized out of the ether, a new clearing in the woods, a new direction, setting us all on a path that could not have been logically deduced.  For my parents this was the move to Delhi.  The place where we were to be for the next ten to fifteen years.

So I sit here waiting for my clearing in the woods, for the path that’s out there, obscured in fog or just unseen by me even if it sits in plain sight.  I know this much is true: whatever that next step is it’s not something that will follow, de rigeur, from whatever it is I am doing at this moment.  I can’t plan for it at least not in any conscious way.  But I do wish I was blessed with some fog lamps!

Places – 2

So many of us, especially the believers in a western, non-fatalist, deterministic line of thought are certain we can plan our lives.  Much effort and much thought goes into having a vision and then directing and acting in a self-written play, taking center stage, lifting the curtains on the enactment of our own scripts.  We want it rendered alive, drawn out of the recesses of our brains and made real.  Willpower plays a key role and certain cinematic cliches like “if you build it they will come” or people saying “dream big”.

I am attracted to this line of thought as well.  I make lists, I set goals, I resolve to do certain things, not do certain things.  I gain immense satisfaction from checking things off my lists.  My notebooks and journals are full of plans and lists.  I have spreadsheets that track our expenses, I have repayment schedules chalked out for my debts, I have fitness goals, writing goals, I want to train hard enough to become a seasoned musician, I want to live in a home that isn’t mortgaged and drive a car that’s paid off, I want to share breakfast with my family every morning; I, like everyone else, believe that these things could make me happy because if I live here, in this country, at this point in time then I have to believe in the pursuit of happiness.  All my steps and all my missteps are taken in an elusive pursuit of happiness while the definitions of happiness keep morphing as I become a different person from one day to the next.

But this is what it always remains, despite the stacks of notebooks chock full of plans and lists and grand visions, we never move from pursuit to destination.  There’s nothing wrong with an eternal pursuit, this is what life is all about, but as I grow older I realize that the most gratifying moments in my life have been the unplanned ones, the serendipitous ones.  Something unexpected happens, as it did for my Dad when he took off for Hawaii, and everything changes.  “Plans” almost always get relegated to the dark attic-like space in the surrounding ether that stores all the roads that weren’t taken because we took detours from the most obvious plans, from the ones that appeared to be the most logical segues at any instant.

The most logical segue for me in 1988 certainly wasn’t a final move to the United States.  I was in the middle of a master’s degree in Economics.  I was uninspired and listless and not at all at home with the mind-boggling squiggles of Econometrics.  The prospect of another year of mastering something that was so challenging and so uninteresting was unpalatable in the extreme but I was resigned to it.  I was sticking to the plan and willing to put myself through every stage of the torture, despite distractions, despite immense boredom.  The plan was to finish that degree.  But something unexpected happened again when my dad got a Fulbright scholarship that was to take him on a tour of universities within several states in the US.

I remember those days, I remember standing at the terrace of our New Delhi flat at Mandakini Enclave, gazing at the horizons, wondering what life had in store for me.  Boredom was the most overwhelming state back then, with distraction close on its heels.  I also had a very distressing asthma condition and my parents had been assured by a doctor at the Patel Chest Institute that my problem might go away with a change of venue; a change that would take me 7,000 miles away, perhaps.

So the biggest and most pleasant surprise of my life was when mom and dad asked me if I wanted to accompany dad to the US.  As if they needed to ask! Of course, of course! I had never wanted anything more than I wanted that.

I was often asked what I would do in the US.  Unlike others my age who came here having secured an admission to an Ivy League institution, or some others who got married early and followed a spouse here, I didn’t have a plan.  I used to say I would “earn and learn”, that this is what Americans did.  A vision of learning while earning was all I had, no other plans, no other details fleshed out.   And even this broad vision was only trotted out for the curious, the nosy.  All I wanted was to break free, to start afresh.  I wanted to see my own footprints in the sand as my fingers slipped from my dad’s guiding grasp, amidst a pool of tears – both his and mine – as I walked on with steps that were shaky and determined at the same time.

Places – 1

I like listening to Ranipur and Kumaitha stories whenever I am sitting in a living room of the 17th floor of my parent’s apartment building in Ottawa, watching the sun set at the Rideau River, the skies the color of mystic topaz.  In my mind, I occupy some sort of a moving point within the imaginary lines of the scalene triangle marked out by these three points on the globe: Ranipur, Kumaitha and Ottawa.  Or perhaps the boundaries of my existence don’t map out a triangle at all; There would be too many points left out in a shape as restrictive as a triangle.  What of Honolulu, Patna, Sabour, Delhi, Columbia, Washington DC, Baltimore, Hackettstown and New York? Perhaps it’s more of an amorphous and amoebic shape that our footprints have traced.

People are always curious about my antecedents.  They want to know where I am from.  I still haven’t figured out a short answer to this question.  What could the short answer be? My parents still don’t have any trouble saying they are from India and my daughter could just say New Jersey and be done with it.

I don’t have the luxury of a short answer in a country where attention spans are short and most questions are rhetorical; demanding a non-answer or no answer at all, and the question is asked in the first place because the person doing the asking is stocking some shelves in his or her brain and wants to be able to find a special shelf for me.  The answer I give could put me on a shelf for which I don’t particularly care. 

When I have the luxury of a leisurely answer I tell them I was born in Hawaii (at the US-Canada border the officers sometimes want to know how that came to be), grew up in New Delhi, did some more growing up in Maryland and DC and then ended up in New Jersey.  An answer that could be a head-scratcher for those shelf-stockers.  In the end I probably get stashed on a shelf reserved for miscellany or exotics.  Of course there are always those who walk up to me and want to know, “habla Espanol?” and still others who ask if I am from Ethiopia or Somalia – maybe something about the longish nose, the eyes the curly hair, the dark complexion, who knows?

I can’t name any one place as a starting point for me.  Even though, as a child I used to view the slides and photographs from Hawaii as often as I could, I was entranced by the colors on the island, the blues, the greens, the exquisite colors of the saris my mom wore, saris that were still fresh from her trousseau.  She never gave the impression of being in an alien environment there, she always looked gorgeous and at home, even with her two long plaits of thick hair; a hairstyle not seen in 1960s Hawaii.  They were so young and in such a perfect place.  I recall with vivid clarity a picture of my mom standing next to a hibiscus plant, the colors were so rich, so tempting, I used to feel I could sink deep into the picture if I stared long enough and hard enough.

As the show went on a little baby made an appearance in the frames projected on the walls and that baby born in the month of June, the month of the pearl, on an island that is often referred to as the pearl of the Pacific, was enveloped in all the love and care her two very young parents showered on her.

Every time I saw these slides I felt special.  When school was dreadful, when friends were hard to come by, when teachers frightened me and any spectacular academic achievement seemed impossible in an intensely competitive world, I could lose myself in pictures of Hawaii and convince myself that my life would be exciting and different, because the starting point of my narrative was unusual…in my mind.  The shimmering Pacific of my dreams always soothed and comforted me and kept me from lapsing into the dread of ordinariness.

So they reminisce now, towering high above the streets of Ottawa.  They launch Google Earth on their computers once a day and trace the rural roads that lead right up to their ancestral homes in Ranipur and Kumaitha.

Dad peers at the aerial view of Ranipur, a small village near the city of Bettiah, in the middle of the erstwhile Bettiah Raj, where he took his very first steps.  His dad, a freedom fighter, a Gandhian, born at the tail end of the 19th century, couldn’t see beyond the vision of an India free of the British.  That was the only thing on his mind.  He was beaten by the British, jailed by them for passive resistance and satyagraha and each instance made his resolve stronger.  But there were some moments of reflection when he gazed upon his son playing in the courtyard and dad remembers my Baba asking him,”What will you do when you grow up? Will you be a rickshaw puller?” Maybe he knew India would be free and independent soon enough but he couldn’t envision a bright future for his son within independent India.

Mom traces the roads that led up to the village where she grew up, a village called Kumaitha.  I always thought Kumaitha was a funny sounding name, but she mentioned it came about when Kumbhkarana, on his quest to vanquish Rama and company, sat there for some rest and relaxation, “Kumbh baitha” (Kumbh sat here) became Kumaitha.  I recall the maternal side of the my family being constantly ribbed and ridiculed by my dad about their propensity for long siestas, a la Kumbhkarana.

My mom’s grandfather and my own grandfather were contemporaries and friends.  Both of them fighting the British in the Gandhian way, both passionate about the cause, they rode the crest of this passion all the way, until they breathed their last.  Their dedication, their work, their sacrifices bore fruit.

I hear these stories and make attempts to juxtapose the trajectory of my own life against the stories of these ancestors and it makes me question the heft of “nature” in the “nature vs nurture” debate.  Do I possess these genes of passion, of conviction? Or did nurture overwhelm nature completely, vanquishing it, making me a privileged and complacent person, lackadaisical about so many things and taking so much for granted?

I live in a world where I don’t have to imagine my daughter pulling a rickshaw.  But she is also a child of privilege, how many things would she take for granted?

Dad and mom talk about a large chunk of their pre-Independence childhood spent playing in the dirt.  Dad was in the Gandhian system of basic schooling.  He tells me about Basic School and how all they did was weave thread from cotton, dig the earth using a shovel, plant things.  There wasn’t much emphasis on anything academic.  The focus appeared to be the development of efficient agrarian skills.  He never wore anything but khadi growing up.  My grandfather passed away when he was twelve and I hear stories about the rest of his childhood where all the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing were essentially being covered by the wave of goodwill that was my grandfather’s legacy.  I hear about him trudging several miles, the first of every month, to collect the money for his school expenses from someone who wanted to see him get a good education.  He didn’t enter the world of academics until a much later age and had no English until 8th grade.

It is always amazing and fascinating to me that he ended up in Hawaii on a grant from the East West Center of the University of Hawaii for a doctoral program in plant physiology, given his entirely rural background; by some benevolent quirk of fate the rickshaw pulling prophecy was dodged and dismissed.

This fascination of mine will endure for me as it does for my parents.  There must have been so many days of despondence, of not knowing what life had in store for them, of wondering, of frustration until things literally turned on a dime (or 25 paisa coin) for my dad and someone encouraged him to fill up an application that would have him winging his way more than half way across the world.  The 25 paisa application that he reluctantly filled out at the urging of a professor at his college.

Nothing: Part 30

[Note: Possibly of no interest to anyone else]

I am an unabashed eavesdropper.  I love listening in while pretending I couldn’t care less about what’s being said around me.  There is something so thrilling about overheard conversations even if the most mundane things are being discussed.

If each stage or each day of our existence is like a single bead or gem, several of which have been strung together on a thread of memories, in an elegant necklace defining our existence, then overheard conversations certainly reside within the interstices.

I usually sit on the very first seat of my bus on the way back home because the other front seaters are usually the ones who love chatting with each other and with the driver.

A few weeks ago the front seat occupants were two women who were returning to New Jersey after a day spent in New York City.  I soon learned, from listening to their chatter, that they were school bus drivers by profession.  They were so excited at being passengers in a bus that wasn’t painted bright yellow and where they weren’t doing the driving.  Throughout the ride they kept comparing notes on the equipment, asking the driver what the various buttons and controls on his dashboard were, marveling at his cushioned seat which he was smug enough to inform them was made by the same company that supplied airlines with the seat used by the pilots.  They adored the smoothness of the turning angles; something their bright yellow tin could never achieve and the quiet passengers who never needed to be disciplined.  Of course that theory was soon blown to bits when the driver had to grab his microphone in order to silence the obnoxious cell phone chatterer in the back.  They said they were tempted to drive our bus just to see how different it felt.  I was stunned at the level of palpable excitement they were emanating.  The bus driver did have to concede a point to them: the school bus ladies had the POWER! The power to stop all other traffic short simply by extending the long arm of the bus that ends in the sign that reads “STOP”.

I never knew that a bus could have such an effect on people! But then again, I have never been a school bus driver, so how would I know, how would I even begin to grasp the sheer thrill?

Yesterday I sat with a woman who appeared to be a good friend of the driver who was taking us home.  Their conversation was a treat.  They were talking about another driver they knew who was thinking of retiring.  The woman wanted to know why he would consider the retirement option since he was young enough.  She asked the driver, “What would he do? Sit on the porch, read a book?”

Here I was thinking to myself, “Hmm, I wouldn’t mind either one of those options given how my days have been blurring into each other, retaining no distinction, no shape, leaving not a trace of having been lived.”

The driver replied, “Well he could do anything, he has enough saved up.  He could live.  He could get a girlfriend, move to Florida, anything he wants.”

The woman replied, “I don’t know what I would do if I retired.  For me the best place to retire would be New York City.  That is my dream.  Why would anyone want to retire anywhere else? No other place makes sense.  You never have to drive you can go wherever you want, walk anywhere, do anything you want, restaurants, parks, theater, movies – all within easy reach.  I would be so happy here.”

The driver concurred and said this was his dream too.

I thought of all the places I had considered for my own post-retirement days – Quebec City, San Francisco, Vancouver – specifically Victoria or Paris.  I was much younger when those choices were made.  I was seduced by the breathtaking, seductive beauty of those cities.  But now that I heard the driver and the woman discuss New York City I felt my inner voice saying, “Of course, New York is such an obvious choice, it seems like a no-brainer! Who wouldn’t want to retire here, I love it so much I even like coming back on the weekends when I don’t have to be here for work.”

The conversation then moved on to their favorite Broadway plays.  Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera topped their lists.  The woman said that a close friend of hers had played both the Beast and Gaston in the B’way production, over a period of several months.  This certainly is the type of information that makes one exclaim, “oh wow, really” even if one doesn’t know the person who said this nor her friend.  We are always eager to lap up all instances of discovery when it comes to “six degrees of separation”.

The topic of theater segued into what was for me the most interesting tidbit of the evening.  The driver shared some history of the bus line that serves as a mobile shelter for me for at least a third of my day.  I won’t mention the name because every time someone wants to search for L Buses they will be directed to my blog. (These people would be searching for bus schedules or something, in a hurry, and Google would unceremoniously dump them on my blog).

So, it seems this bus line was started by someone who had a Mexican wife who was a showgirl on Broadway.  He used to drive her to Manhattan and back everyday.  Soon enough there were several women from Mexico in Dover, NJ who were showgirls who needed to commute to and from Manhattan on a daily basis and at all odd hours.  This was the spark that led to the idea of L Buses which number in the hundreds now and originate at the Dover, NJ terminal.  That’s where they are returned every night where they are cleaned inside and out and put back on the road every morning.  The operation is gigantic and is now run with supreme efficiency by the daughter of the considerate, bright and resourceful founder and his beloved showgirl wife.  She runs the bus line with her husband and her own daughter stops by to help with the paperwork although her true passion lies in becoming a veterinarian.

Interesting! At least to me.  Learnt something I never knew, never would have known if I hadn’t been so fond of eavesdropping.  Is it useful information? Maybe not, although it would make for interesting small talk with other passengers some day when we’re waiting for a bus and are chatting about nothing in particular. 

It is an enchanting interstitial event.

Nothing: Part 29

I used to invest in fancy looking journals.  Every now and then partially used Moleskines and other little notebooks with ornate covers emerge when I am eliminating clutter from various hidden corners of the home.  Each new journal I picked up from the paper stores stated a desire to write down how I felt.

Perhaps this desire stemmed from an inherent shyness when it came to conversing.  I was never able to find the right moment to jump into a conversation.  My very first co-workers used to say, “You know…it won’t hurt to add in your own two cents every now and then.”  I remember responding with a smile and saying I was listening and learning…absorbing things.  There’s no doubt I was doing exactly that, but it was also true that I felt that the moments when I could have made my point were fleeting and never quite within my grasp; they hovered around me, tantalized and soon fled. The witticisms that occurred to me, when they did, usually appeared on the second day after the original conversation.

So journals were where I often resolved to speak my mind.  I filled the pages with some regularity for five or ten days and then tired of the exercise, leaving them sitting around on nightstands, gathering dust.

When I first discovered blogging in the year 2001 I was thrilled.  The idea of penning my thoughts down in the relative anonymity of cyberspace was tempting.  I had never been particular about secrecy or privacy.  I didn’t care if people read what I wrote.  I never wanted it to be an exercise in self-branding.  I just liked tapping away on the computer as the screen filled up with words.  It wasn’t narcissism.  It was just an outlet, it was a pretend conversation, one I would have had if I ever encountered someone as mute and unresponsive as the blank screen of the computer.

The more I wrote the more I wanted to write.  Even if the writing was directionless, even if there was no stated goal.  The writing was nothing but a way to de-clutter the brain itself.  Maybe a little like the “defragmentation” exercise that we often conduct on our computers, where all the empty unused spaces get compressed and reconfigured, showing you that your hard drive really has more unused space than you thought it did.  Writing was like defragmenting; a way to fetter those floating fragments of clutter.

Of course one’s entire family and complement of friends weren’t online back then.  Now everyone is.  And, oddly enough, a few people appear interested in the flotsam and jetsam of my consciousness.  Things even get quoted back to me a couple of times a year.  The simple desire to just write has given way to conscious thought about what I’m writing, how it’d be perceived, who’d read it, what would they think? 

“What would they think”, appears to be the worst of them all.  Deep inside, I feel one shouldn’t worry about what anyone would think, that one should have as many degrees of freedom as our individual social consciousness and concerns permit.  There is no room for censors in expression.

That is the underlying theme of course.  But there are always variations.

One would never find me opposing the freedom of expression.  However, the older I get, the more I realize that I never feel exactly the same as I did in the last moment.  I read what I wrote two days ago and wonder why I wrote it, why I felt the way I did.  Some thoughts that get penned down are passing ones, even if they are dark and despairing.  Things pass, a new day brings new challenges, new perspectives, shifting dynamics.  Life flows.

When I started writing this I was thinking about a dark message left by a dear cousin of mine on a public, online forum.  My cousin and the entire extended family are still trying to find ways to deal with a recent tragedy and the debilitating grief that followed in its wake.

We’re all scattered far and wide and the virtual connection to each other is often the only one.  So her message of despair sent ripples throughout the entire family.  We were afraid, afraid for her, afraid for us, for her parents.  We wanted some assurance that she was well, that she was coping with the tragedy as best as she could, that she was trying her best to take baby steps forward, out of the darkness, and that she really didn’t feel the way she said she did in an online status message.

But perhaps what she wrote was just a turn her thoughts had taken in one fleeting moment.  Perhaps she felt better, more clear-headed, after she spoke her mind in such a public way.

Perhaps all is well.  The rest of us were concerned (still are) and seek assurances that all is well with her…but our concerns could be elevated and hyped by the fact that our lives are so much more public now.  Every thought has an instantaneous ripple effect. 

There is no “relative anonymity”.  We are inextricably intertwined in a messy mass consciousness.  So where does that leave the freedom of expression? It’s so much easier to raise red flags with our words, to wound with our words and perhaps set up cascading waves of despair with them, these days.

I recall coming to a realization here, in this space, that once you become aware of what you are doing, you fall off a groove, you fall off the bicycle you’re trying to learn how to ride, you hit the wrong notes in music, you get the rhythm and the timing of things all messed up.  I wouldn’t want anything I write here to appear filtered, censored and strained through a colander.  It is my space.  But readers, if any, please realize that what’s said here today may not be my reality tomorrow.

Nothing: Part 28

Sunday nights are all about mental preparations and strategic outlines for tackling Mondays.  I know I’ll be reluctant to hop out of bed and that I won’t feel up to any challenges until the mint and the fluoride hit the gums and the enamel, and the burning hot water hits the skin.  It will all have to be timed and choreographed.  The guilt will make its appearance right on schedule when A is dragged out of bed early and when she is at Y’s doorstep, waiting to be let in.  She will probably nap on Y’s couch until the bus arrives.

Then I’d have to steel myself to deal with the creeping traffic.  Judging by the Channel 2 weather guy’s report the most common cause for creeping traffic would be sun glare tomorrow.  I’ll have to keep an eye on the Rt 80 overpass that can be seen from Rt 46 to spot back to back, creeping cars and trucks in order to decide whether I take the ramp to 80 or continue on 46, braving the scary traffic circle (hate traffic circles!).

My driving stress will end at the park and ride and there will be some reprieve while I snooze.  Then something will wake me up, probably the Lakeland Bus driver’s radio, as he talks to other drivers, wondering why Lincoln Tunnel is simply not moving.

The next decision would be whether to walk to the office or to switch two trains to get to work.  That would depend on whether the bus made it to Port Authority by 8:40 AM or 8:55 AM.  The latter would rule out walking.  I’d get on the subway and get to work by 9:20 AM.  I’d stare at the large clock as I make it through the revolving doors wondering if walking would have been as effective and better for my health.  I’d also wonder if there’s enough time to get real coffee from Pret or Europa Cafe or whether I’d have to make do with the office coffee, made with awful creamer, because a Dolores Umbridge like office manager has cut off milk or half and half supplies for us after spotting someone pouring some into cereal.  Yes, yes it isn’t the office’s job to keep us in milk and cereal…sigh!

Before I open up the first MS Excel file of the day my mind would already have gone through a complex flowchart littered with if and then choices and consequences.

Then we’ll have the midday deadline to meet.  A deadline that would have been obliterated had the VPN connection not given me this sweet message on Sunday:  Error 429.  Unable to resolve server address.  Why after three years of VPN access is it suddenly not able to resolve server address? I don’t know.  I’ll never know. 

Two and a half hours to create several spreadsheets and pie charts.  It would be more than enough time if the servers, the RAM etc were all cooperating and if there was no danger of losing my work because “Save” generated a message “Not Responding”.  It would be so pleasant if it didn’t take twenty minutes to open each file, twenty minutes to save it, twenty minutes to close it because the computer appears unable to handle several open windows.

All this would stress me out because there would be no recourse, no sympathy, the deadlines are mine to meet and anything else amounts to shirking or whining or both.

Through it all I’ll stay worried or guilty about A.  I’d keep thinking I am forgetting something.  I’ll wonder if I’d be able to surmount all difficulties and meet the deadline in time for making my 6:10 PM bus.  I would need to make sure I leave by 5:40 PM in order to get that bus.  I would ideally like to leave at 5:10 PM and get on the 5:45 PM bus but that bus has a midget creep who travels on it, the one who ignores all empty seats and asks to sit next to me.  It’s just exhausting to keep telling him he can have the seat because I am moving to another one.  One would think he’d get the hint by now! So 5:45 must always be skipped.  

Whichever bus I take it will always get stuck near the Meadowlands after exiting the Lincoln Tunnel, sometimes for hours on end.  That’s just the way things are.  Through it all I’ll be praying for some kind of serenity while the brain wants to keep returning to agony.  Must accept what we can’t change.

Home!  Finally I’ll be at Y’s doorstep, ready to collect A at 8:00 PM, when most kids are already in bed or an hour away from bedtime.  Bedtime just won’t happen for her until 10:30 PM.  Is that a parenting crime?  Will the Super-parent police force come after me with their “tsk, tsks” or more? Some folks would say to me how their goal is to get their kids in bed before 9:00 PM and the words would hit like a million jackhammers on my head. 

Through all this choreography, this tightrope walking, this constant planning and strategizing for each twenty four hour period I’ll see myself getting smaller and smaller, diminished beyond recognition, expecting nothing, planning for nothing, setting no goals other than the next grocery list, as time goes on. 

I’ve always tried to gaze into the eyes of other women in the family: grandmas, grandaunts, aunts, in sepia toned photographs of yore.  Photographs from when they were little girls, from when they became mothers and in their present wrinkled or toothless stage.  I don’t know what I am looking for…perhaps some signs of a desire to leave an imprint of their having existed, of their having meant something to the line of descendants who owe their existence to them.  But I never catch this glimpse.   When I inquire about some of the women in our family tree (added in there as “? Mishra” or “? Devi” or “? Jha”) people don’t even remember the names of the women who were.

Not only is it distressing, it may also be prophetic, as a future person with some fraction of my blood gazes at an old album or an old digital record (even more ephemeral and inconsequential than an old scrapbook or album) and notices nothing but exhaustion and resignation, if anything.

Nothing: Part 27

A thought about loneliness crossed my mind in the last instant: loneliness is not debilitating.  One need not weave any lacy ornamentation around the state of being lonely.  It can’t be painted red, blue or black and it looks just the same to the people who happen to glance at you, it doesn’t change your shape or size or smell.  It is what it is, just something to feel in a given twenty-four hour period and then get past it to feel something else. 

Why write about it then? Well, because this idea is sort of an epiphany.  In earlier years, the years when he used to leave on Sunday mornings after deliberately hitting “Play” on the track that bore the Lynrd Skynrd song “Freebird“, it might have led to cascading misery; to a downward spiral of thoughts that resembled constant internal whining and external manifestations of gloom along the lines of “why me”.  But now the “why not me” thought easily cancels out the “why me” thought and we are back to balanced nothingness.

It is a floating nothingness with no moorings, one that allows an astral viewing of time folding in on itself, of things happening, often monotonous and repetitive but with the occasional burst of tantalizing color that fades almost as swiftly as it appeared. 

The red tail lights, the gray office walls flushed with fluorescent lighting, the endless arithmetic manipulation of numbers in 17,179,869,184 cells in a spreadsheet are just the parched landscape in my bird’s eye view; a desert where a sudden burst of color works its own unique magic.  Sometimes this color comes in the form of a tiny, neon green bird that pecks at my kitchen window while my daughter and I run around trying to find the instant when we could “cage” it on film.  Or when the cabbage we planted shows us it has nine lives…or more…every time it resurrects itself after being vanquished by birds.  It comes while we gaze at the green tomatoes and wonder how long they’ll stay hidden from the scampering bunnies and hedgehogs.  It will soon come in the color of red when the first strawberries we ever planted ripen.  Unless of course the entire patch gets dominated by a killer habanero orange because of the seeds that Mr Freebird scattered everywhere, never in his wildest dreams imagining the profuse fecundity of this killer pepper seed. 

The latest brushstroke on the stark canvas came after the purchase of an ancient toy, the Slinky.  I never imagined that a slinky would capture an eight year old’s imagination to the extent that it did.  The Nintendo DSi and all the apps on mommy’s iPhone are now forgotten as she works on creating a shoebox, theatrical depiction of Alice in Wonderland where the slinky will play the part of the hole through which Alice takes the plunge into Wonderland.  Tweedledee, Tweedledum, Alice and the Cheshire Cat puppets have already been fashioned out of cardboard and the remaining cast of characters will be ready for the grand opening on the day Daddy comes back home for the weekend.

And so, life goes on.  She gets her ideas riding in the back seat of my car, I get my passing thoughts on loneliness or love, on being needed or feeling needy, on aging, on contentment or discontent, on expectations or lack thereof, while ferrying us here or there.  The thoughts swirl around and evaporate as soon as the ride ends and we step through a door.


Nothing: Part 26

Aaron Sorkin’s creation, The West Wing, ended its seven year run on May 14th, 2006.  I was an avid watcher of this brilliant show but as time goes by and memory fades, I am left to grapple with this one line of dialogue that was spoken by the character of Leo McGarry to the fictional White House staffer – Ali: “That’s the price you pay.”

It has been over four years since the show last aired but I haven’t forgotten those words or the fictional context in which they spoken.  I remember feeling uncomfortable as I watched that scene.  I balked at the possibility that something like this could happen in the real world even as I applauded Sorkin’s brilliance in including such a line in the script.

In this episode, the character of Ali was suspected of being involved in terrorist activities.  I refreshed my memory of the scene with the aid of Google’s search engine.  The dialogue progressed as follows:

ALI: It’s not uncommon for Arab Americans to be the first suspected when that sort of thing happens.
LEO: I can’t imagine why.
ALI: Look…
LEO: No, I’m trying to figure out why anytime there’s terrorist activity people always assume it’s Arabs.  I’m racking my brain.
ALI: I don’t know the answer to that, Mr. McGarry, but I can tell you it’s horrible.
LEO: Well, that’s the price you pay.

Watching then, I was stunned to hear the character of Leo utter those words, was quite shaken and angry despite being aware it was a television drama.

Ali had responded to that remark with confusion and anger, saying, “Excuse me? The price for what?”

I remember that in the final scene of this episode Leo went back to Ali to make amends.  He said that he was just about to say that it was the price to pay for “having the same physical features as criminals”.

The explanation didn’t do anything to appease me.  The director didn’t show Ali’s character appear comforted by the explanation either.  The scene faded to black with Buffalo Springfield’s song – For What It’s Worth – playing in the background:  There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear/There’s a man with a gun over there/Telling me I got to beware/I think it’s time we stop, children,what’s that sound/Everybody look what’s going down/There’s battle lines being drawn/Nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong…

The point was made.  Pondering this, over the years, there always appears to be a price to pay.  It’s as though we’ve all made a collective bargain and are splitting the bill, “going dutch” at this grand buffet of life, even if we refrained from partaking. 

The Buffalo Springfield song was a good choice to close out the scene.  History repeats itself as Arizona passes a law that allows officials to stop anyone who doesn’t look Arizonan enough…I suppose, and to demand that they show their papers or as I read a frequently traveling, brown skinned friend’s status message on a social networking site that says he was “randomly” searched five out of the last six times that he traveled. 

It is somewhat ironical that the generation that kept beat with this Buffalo Springfield song in 1967 is the same one that is responsible for approving laws like the one that was just passed in Arizona and demanding more of the same.  Young people still speak their minds often enough and up to the age where they are not considered “young people” anymore.  Life goes on.

There’s further irony in that we are all quite willing to “pay this price” submit to searches, deal with being under suspicion for one thing or another because there’s a profile that we partially or fractionally share with someone else. We will moan and groan but we will pay as many times as we are required to pay it – for the greater good.  No harm, no foul: we generalize, we assume, we profile, we extrapolate.  This is how things are, how we are.  It has all happened before and will happen again and again…as they concluded in another brilliant show – Battlestar Galactica.  🙂

Nothing:Part 25

It’s very kind of people to read something I’ve written and then ask me why I am so blue or why what they read here had a thread of sadness running through it (wonder why I thought of the movie “A River Runs Through It” when I wrote about the thread of sadness).  The truth is, there is no sadness and in fact there is nothing to be sad about.  What comes across as sadness perhaps, is this sense of resignation…and resignation isn’t the right word either.  Let’s just say it’s placidity, at least on the surface of things.  Underneath, deep underneath the surface, what churns is a battle between acceptance, contentment, playing the hand one was dealt with panache, with wry, self-directed humor or rejecting it all in favor of something better, the clichéd search for more verdant abundance.  

The problem with being so connected on a virtual, social platform is the Rashomon like multiple interpretations of one’s state of mind by one’s peers and by one’s loved ones.  Out come the perenially positive advice givers telling me how tomorrow will be another day, how whatever I am feeling will pass, how to change my attitude to something more positive, more “happy” in their eyes.  Some quote the scriptures or the saints at me while I watch amused, thinking, that’s not it.  Some relate personal experiences where they were beset with worries and emerged unscathed.  I have already been to those places and have passed beyond.  

I have learnt valuable lessons from each experience and know now at this halfway point in life, that this is indeed life.  There are good days and bad and in the end there’s the mean that takes the high points and the low points into account.

Writing it all down is what helps me understand.  I never learnt anything from all my institutions of learning unless I wrote down my own version of the things I had read.  So in this blog I write how I feel,  I come here to “play Jesus to the lepers in my head” as I say at the very top of the blog.  It’s a recalibration of sorts.  It’s believing in myself and knowing that all of this, some version of it, has happened before and will happen again.  No smile ever stays frozen on one’s face and no sadness remains unmitigated.  

So if it all appears tinged with blue, perhaps I’ve been holding my breath a bit too long.  I am reminding myself to breathe and to just go on putting one step in front of another, addressing the concerns of the moment, nothing more, nothing less.

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