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…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0g9PiEgYYUU&feature=related

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.

Nothing: Part 24

I was feeling ashamed of having spent my Sunday doing absolutely nothing until I read something about not feeling guilty about things like doing nothing.  So I stopped feeling guilty and continued doing nothing at all. 

The list of nothings included several back to back episodes of LMN (Lifetime Movie Network) movies – with names like “Vows of Deception” and “Deadly Honeymoon”.  It’s amazing how capable these movies are of sinking their hooks deep inside.  There was one where a neighbor woman kept walking into her friend and neighbor’s home, at all odd hours, and replacing her insulin vials with vodka.  The poor woman kept getting DUIs after being sober for over ten years.  The wicked neighbor wanted to steal her husband and her life.  And there are so many stories of women sans conscience or remorse all meeting a deadly “Fatal Attraction” like ending in the end.

I was watching a commercial where a woman stand up comic was poking fun at the concept of television for women saying, “Sure it’s television for women, women are constantly getting kicked around, raped, murdered, abused…” It drew laughs but most of the time the writers of these short movies show women being portrayed as victimizers rather than victims! Is this underscoring a much debated and oft-repeated conclusion that women are their own worst enemies? I should pay attention to the gender of the writers of these scripts.

The hubby, who was also spending his Sunday doing nothing, got snagged by some of these “deadly” shows on LMN too!

I think I’ll spend the next Sunday watching Spike TV to see what they think men like to watch. 

When these movies got too repetitive I started watching back to back episodes of “House” on Bravo.  This show is becoming a real addiction.  Hugh Laurie is excellent in his role as the cantankerous and obnoxious Dr Gregory House.  I am also amazed at how convincing an American he makes.

Loved a line where he called himself a “rational” man and his best friend a “rationalizing” man.  How interesting a distinction.

I did eventually get tired of the idiocy of non-stop TV watching and walked around doing this or that around the house, practicing the medley “The Memories of Stephen Foster” (specifically Old Folks at Home, Oh! Susanna and Old Black Joe) for my upcoming violin concert, followed by a vocal practice session where I tried to improve my rendition of Raag Desh

As I practice my music I wonder about how I can make the session less mechanical.  I do “homework” at the moment, doing whatever my teachers have told me to do before getting ready for the next class but I am feeling like quite an idiot doing just that.  I need to have some conversations with people, I need my own insights, I need to bounce ideas off someone, but I’ve always been lonely in my chosen pursuits. 

I need to feel unstuck and would give anything for that soaring, euphoric feeling that hasn’t paid me a visit in a very long time, not since the day I started this blog and called it – Epiphany.  Well, I need the next epiphany.  I need sustained gusto, sustained enthusiasm, without resorting to something that prevents serotonin re-uptake.

This thing called “small pleasures” is much discussed these days.  Everyone is talking about looking for small pleasures, about slowing down, stopping, smelling whatever (roses aren’t always around)…so I am trying.  The only problem is about sustaining such pleasures once they are found. 

Walking around several blocks of NYC at the lunch hour on Friday was different and hence fun, but won’t doing it everyday become mundane and routine? Should I start taking the subway to Central Park or walk to different parks around the neighborhood next? The only problems is – I hate riding the subways and I only have an hour for lunch.  I can’t possibly lose myself in a book in a park when the time spent is weighing on me. 

Cooking? But then there are messy kitchen counters and dirty dishes, also ingredient shopping and perennial barbs from the hubby if all purchased ingredients don’t get utilized.  Small pleasures appear to be as perishable as the luscious green vegetables and fruits I found at the very pleasurable Whole Foods Market during my Friday rambling.

Well, I just added Dominique Browning’s blog “Slow Love Life” to my list of blogs I follow.  She appears to be on a quest for small pleasures and I could use some inspiration along these lines.

Floccinaucinihilipilification: Part 23

We spent most of the weekend at the student concert where I performed a short composition in Jhap Taal, followed by a longer teen taal composition in Raag Bihag.  If you are interested in knowing how I did then you can see the videos here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGKT7XXNSeo

here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyoKhnSdq9Q

and here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=574cUY6Dwj0

I get a bit winded toward the end.  So this tells me I need to practice those longer notes, riding on a single breath, with even more diligence.  But I am happy to report there were no pins and needles while sitting cross-legged.

It does feel rather surreal to see myself sitting there wrapped up in a chanderi sari, singing a composition or two in Raag Bihag, to the accompaniment of tabla and harmonium. 

It’s an image of enhanced incongruency when viewed with this:


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alongside this:

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Same person? No wonder it was such a struggle for me to come up with a vision board.

That was the other thing the three of us did together on Sunday; constructed a vision board for ourselves.

Anoushka was excited about the project although there were some thoughtful frowns followed by a statement that she didn’t really desire anything more, that she already had everything she wanted.  I was stunned and proud to have raised such a “self-actualized” child, already at the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  I have seen that in action as well.  She always has a very hard time figuring out if she wants anything at a store, even when she’s given a generous budget.  The most she can think of is jelly beans!

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But the prospect of using poster boards, glue sticks, magic markers and glittery stickers was too tempting and she got into it with gusto.  She even got done in record time with a vision board that would put most adults to shame.  She found the exact images she needed and got to work with her scissors on the stack of magazines we had laid out for the purpose.  The scope of her vision is broad: earth conscious, environment conscious and her desires – all reflective of a broader, optimistic and altruistic nature.  Like I said it put me to shame because I am not now, nor was I ever (not even at her age) AS concerned about the world and the life on it as I was about myself.  Let’s hope this will last in her.

Mine was a struggle and a stretch.  It’s hard to put down on poster board, a kaleidoscopic, eclectic vision, a fragmented vision that has always lacked laserlike accuracy and focus.  I like too many things to be tied down to one vision.  I do know that I want to write and that I want to be passionately involved with music and the arts.  I dabble, I aspire to continue dabbling but dabbling is never good enough for revenue generation and someone with loans, a family, a desire for a secure future and a comfortable present always needs to act with revenue generation in mind.  That’s the sadness that runs through it all.  But I did my best with it.  Let’s see how close I get to what I envisioned.

The whole idea of the creation of a vision board might seem hokey to most of us.  And in cynical, boredom filled moments, so it seems to me.  But I occasionally rouse myself from the stupor by saying, “Visualization works, you know it works, it has always worked for you, so get back to it!” More than anything else, the activity brought us all together for a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

The last thing I did over the weekend was finish reading Julian Barnes’s masterful musings in “Nothing To Be Frightened Of“.  The thing that we’re talking about here is death.  How much I’ve liked a book is usually evident from the number of pages I’ve dog-eared from the bottom.  I’ve mentioned somewhere else on this blog that I like dog-earing pages to which I want to return from the bottom (this is less offensive to me than marking up the book by underlining).  The number of brilliant insights in this book are too many to enumerate.

I mentioned one to Anoushka, as we stood around in the kitchen toasting slices of bread for breakfast.  I told her I read something that she probably wouldn’t understand yet, but it was interesting.  She wanted to know what it was I read.  So I told her that the author in the book I was reading said that when he was a child he used to think that when he grew up he’d be the one in control, he’d be the one ‘wielding the whip’.

Anoushka interrupted me then to say, “But I don’t think grown ups have any control, any freedom.  They always have to do things they don’t want to do and listen to bosses or others.”

I stared at her, speechless, because she had preempted the next bit of what I was going to tell her about what Julian Barnes said! He had said that when he grew up he learnt that he wasn’t wielding a whip, that in fact he was nothing more than the tip of the whip!

I don’t know what it is about A, maybe the fact that she’s reading at a level three grades above her own or that she is just more thoughtful than I ever remember being.  But she certainly surprises me a lot.

I think I’ll be compelled to write some more about the rest of what Julian Barnes mused in this book but two minor things serve as some validation:

He said here, quoting from his own journal from twenty years ago:

People say of death, “There’s nothing to be frightened of.”  They say it quickly, casually.  Now let’s say it again, slowly, with reemphasis.  “There’s NOTHING to be frightened of.”  Jules Renard: “The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word ‘nothing.'”

Haven’t I implied the same (the bolded part) with each one of my “Nothing” posts?  Ok, just kidding, just being facetious.  But even the earlier part of this quote from his own journal gives one so much to think about.  Precisely, the NOTHING, to be frightened of.

And finally an utterly useless word that entered my vocabulary through this book, but does say it all in 29 letters: Floccinaucinihilipilification, meaning to estimate as worthless.  You’ll still have 111 letters leftover if you wanted to discuss this on Twitter.

So here we are, once again awaiting NOTHING.

Nothing: Part 22

“Are you comfortable?”

An innocuous question like that left me feeling surprised and somewhat stunned when a friend asked me that at a meeting over coffee.

My emphatic answer and accompanying smile was an attempt to convince her that I was indeed comfortable and our conversation continued.  We talked about all our experiences during the intervening years, just like two friends meeting after a very long time would.  And yet there was the echo of her remark, ricocheting around my brain…”are you comfortable, are you comfortable?”

Perhaps it hit me because I don’t think I ever feel “comfortable”.  Not around people, not when I am by myself, in a word – never.  The balance is almost always tilted toward some strain or some stress.  I am always filled with a weird sense of hyper-awareness about my physical boundaries, of the space I take as I move through the world. 

I feel a sense of awe at people who sit back on a couch or even on a park bench and look as though they are not feeling any tension in the legs that are extended forward with such ease, the arm that casually rests on the back of the seat, shoulders that find a natural slope of relaxation and are not squared against a hostile world.  I am envious of that ability to merge with one’s surroundings, to feel at home anywhere.

When I was younger I was always worried about creasing my ironed clothes.  As I grew older I never felt certain about stepping in with a segue that would carry a group conversation forward.  I was either quiet or tense about making a point in a voice that would be heard before someone steered the conversation away to a place where the point I was nurturing in my brain, for several minutes while someone more voluble was making theirs, would appear like nothing but a non sequitur or a meaningless digression.  Some folks would notice and ask me to speak up more often, to put in my two cents, while I smiled and said I was “listening” and “absorbing”. 

I was also never sure about my hands, I never knew what to do with them when standing around at a party or in a circle of friends.  I would worry about whether they should be in my pockets, on my hips, folded across my chest, hanging limply by the sides, clutching something, twirling something? I just didn’t know what to do with them.  The pockets grew to be quite a comfort zone.  So much so that for the longest time I was known to bring tea or water or plates of food to guests at home with one hand, while the other was stuffed in a pocket.  I remember feeling very annoyed with relatives and wondering what the big deal was about using two hands where the usage of one sufficed!

I suppose some people are just born square in a world that only accepts round pegs.  I sometimes feel like I’ve spent whole life whittling away the squares, wanting to force a fit, or having accomplished said “fit” finding myself asphyxiated and boxed in, wanting nothing more than the freedom to be my square self, come what may.  How is a natural ease with oneself possible when the fight is always so acute?

It makes for quite the duality of existence.  The public side where I often succeed in appearing like the person I am forcing myself to be; pretending until it feels natural, pretending until the pretense feels like anything but pretense, and the intensely private side that manifests in the discomfort that some rare, perceptive souls can sense, in something as unnoticeable as the way I am sitting across from someone at a cafe table!

Speaking of “perceptive souls”, aren’t we all in search of the one that would see and understand that part of us that our layers of pretense have not been successful in masking?  I think we spend our whole lives searching for one such.  They say love makes the world go round and things like “love is all you need”.  Not really, unless it’s a facetious way of saying what makes the world go round is finding the love who gets to the heart of “your” matter.

I have continued my tradition of listening and absorbing, now through virtual conversations and chats.  I notice that as soon as one starts a conversation the responses that come back in reaction to what you said or did, or what went on in your life in the last minute, hour or day, are often detailed ones about how that person would have reacted, what they would have thought or done, had they been in your position.  The sounds of wanting to be known, to be heard, to be understood and defined are clamorous.  We are all selling clues, offering them up cheap on the social media market, and yet there are no takers, no buyers, only sellers.

All of it just ending in a dissonance that stays unresolved while people try to fit in and stand out all at once.

It was interesting to watch this John Cleese documentary: The Human Face, the other day. It was about facial expressions and how crucial they are to social interactions and communication.  The story of a little girl who was born with the Mobius syndrome, a facial paralysis that left her unable to smile, was a cause of serious concern for her parents.  They feared the worst for her when she started school.  They worried about how other kids would see her, treat her.  She underwent surgery that gave her a smile and her world was set right.  That is how important smiles are. 

The other interesting case in the documentary was of a Cambridge student who had a form of Asperger’s syndrome.  His problem was an inability to understand and interpret facial cues.  He didn’t know what a downturned mouth meant, what frowns meant, what it meant when someone was wide eyed.  He felt like a misfit because he couldn’t tell what people were communicating with their expressions! So he made a study out of it.  He prepared a mental inventory of what each expression possibly meant.  He taught himself.  He “pretended” to know until he really got to know.  Now he fit.  Now he wasn’t isolated.

And so we try, we are social animals, we depend on each other, we seek connections and sometimes the manner in which those connections will be made have to be learnt.  They aren’t always inborn except in a lucky few.  Others have to learn how to compensate for deficits, or add corners or slats in order to fit.  Perhaps the person I envy, who looks oh-so-comfortable at a party, or on a park bench or at a cafe, is also just pretending.  Or maybe comfort in social situations is not a problem for them but mathematics or spelling is.  Together we all add up and fit, I suppose.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve grown up reading so many fairy tales about the princess asleep in some palace tower, asleep and oblivious, or silent while elsewhere in the tale there’s a prince or a knight who has to set forth on a quest and find various clues along the way until he finds the key to her heart. 

Digression (as if one can digress from nothing): Funny how the Princess is always the passive, sleepy or silent one, awaiting the Knight or Prince who knows what makes her tick.

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. 

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