What ‘Shooting Marvin in the Face’ Taught Me About Making Mistakes

One of the most, if not the most, memorable scenes in the history of movie making is the shooting of Marvin in Pulp Fiction. It is a scene that completely turns the movie on its head, generates a shock value unparalleled in its nature, and leads the movie down paths that turn out to be future reference points in movie making. But I am not here to sing praise of the movie or the scene. I am here to point out something rather subtle that I observed in the scene and which has taught me a valuable lesson.

So let’s revisit the scene, shall we? Here it is, in all its glory:

Wow. Talk about shock value! Nothing hits you in the head (pun intended) more like this scene!

At about 55 seconds in, Vincent (John Travolta) shoots Marvin in the face that results in a blood and gut drenched car driving on the interstate in broad daylight, with two men in blood soaked suits in the front, and a dead, headless Marvin in the backseat! Now I am going to ask you to completely set aside the dark comic nature of the scene (no, really) and focus objectively on the way Vincent Vega reacts to the ‘incident’. Here is the transcript:

Vincent: Whoa!
Jules: What the fuck's happening, man? Ah, shit man!
Vincent: Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.
Jules: Why the fuck did you do that!
Vincent: Well, I didn't mean to do it, it was an accident!
Jules: Oh man I've seen some crazy ass shit in my time...
Vincent: Chill out, man. I told you it was an accident. You probably went over 
a bump or something.
Jules: Hey, the car didn't hit no motherfucking bump!
Vincent: Hey, look man, I didn't mean to shoot the son of a bitch. The gun 
went off. I don't know why.
Jules: Well look at this fucking mess, man. We're on a city street in broad 
daylight here!
Vincent: I don't believe it.
Jules: Well believe it now, motherfucker! We gotta get this car off the road! 
You know cops tend to notice shit like you're driving a car drenched in fucking
blood.
Vincent: Just take it to a friendly place, that's all.

                         

Now Vincent’s first reaction to the shooting is significant. What he says is as important as the way he says it. What he says is “Oh man! I shot Marvin in the face!”. And the tone that he uses is completely out of sync with the nature of the situation at hand. Instead of completely freaking out (much like Jules does), the tone he uses is perhaps something more appropriate for far lesser ‘crimes’. Something along the lines of the following everyday oversights:

  • Oh man! I forgot to add sugar to your coffee!
  • Oh man! I forgot to charge my cell phone before heading out.
  • Oh man! I still haven’t renewed my drivers license.
  • Oh man! I spilled some milk on the floor.
  • Oh man! I locked myself out of my car.
  • Oh man! I left my debit card at the ATM machine.
  • Oh man! I missed my exit on the interstate.

You get the idea.

Now use Vincent’s tone and expressions in any of the above reactions to every day oversights, and it will seem to be rather fitting for a ‘crime’ of that significance. So how or why would Vincent use that tone after he shot a seemingly innocent kid in the backseat who just ‘didn’t even have an opinion’ about ‘divine intervention’?

The answer to that is Vincent instantly acknowledged his ‘mistake’, accepted the situation, AND forgave himself for it. And with his ‘mistake’ forgiven and firmly in hindsight (within a few seconds), he proceeds to describe the situation as such – something wrong he did in the past that he doesn’t feel attached to anymore, and having come to terms with it completely. He even proceeds to clarify that it was indeed an accident and that he had no intention to shoot Marvin.

Now make no mistake. There was a marked carelessness that preceded the shooting – Vincent holding his gun in his hand, finger in trigger, AND pointing it straight at Marvin while talking to him. It is a carelessness that could have been easily avoided, thus sparing Marvin’s life*. But our man Vincent Vega chooses not to dwell on those aspects. He perhaps acknowledged those actions of his and ensures that he doesn’t repeat them in the future. And he does so instantaneously, thereby also ensuring that he doesn’t live with the guilt and blame for the rest of his life.

*But, seriously, why on earth would anyone want to be in a world where Marvin is still alive?!?

Now let us just ask ourselves some questions here.

  • How do WE react when we or other people make mistakes?
  • How long do WE dwell on our or others’ past mistakes and situations?
  • How long do WE hold our guilt and regret over something that happened in the past?
  • What does it take for us to accept the situation for what it is and move on in our lives – free of baggage?

We all make unintended mistakes – many of them arising out of our own carelessness or indiscipline. And then we typically spend months, years (and maybe even the rest of our lives) blaming ourselves or others for them and holding varying amounts of guilt/resentment and/or living in despair. Our lives and the lives of people around us are adversely affected because of our guilt and resentment. But what if we could simply forgive ourselves the way Vincent Vega did after accidentally shooting Marvin? It doesn’t have to be instantaneous, surely. But what if we at least genuinely considered that forgiveness was an option? Wouldn’t that be a far better option than living the rest of our lives with a ‘What if’ of ‘If only’ preceding our every thought?

So let’s run by a few such situations where we shall substitute our typical reactions with what Vincent Vega would say in a similar situation:

  • Oh man! I got badly drunk the night before the <insert name of important exam> and screwed up my chances of going to college.
  • Oh man! My alcoholic mom totally screwed up my childhood.
  • Oh man! My ex cheated on me big time.
  • Oh man! My dog got run over when I was distracted on my phone.
  • Oh man! I wish I was around more often with my kids when they were growing up.

There is absolutely no attempt at humor with what I have written in the list above. I write this only to put across the point that even things mentioned in the list above (and similar) merit our acceptance and forgiveness. The path forward would lie in accepting the situation for what it is, recognizing our mistakes and role in the situation, forgiving ourselves for it, and ensuring that we do not repeat them in the future. And the first 3 are necessary to accomplish the last one because it is that much harder to not repeat the mistakes when we are still beating ourselves up over what we did in the past.

So please, whenever it is you find you are blaming yourself for something that you did or that happened in the past, just stop and ask yourself the following question:

What would Vincent Vega do?

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PS: It should be pointed out that this post was written sitting in a coffee shop and watching Vincent Vega blow Marvin’s head off on a loop! Try doing that and still having a straight face to write a post about acceptance and forgiveness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minimizing Decisions and Going to the Gym

 

Developing a new (constructive) habit is on everyone’s agenda. And it is almost never an easy task. The discipline, time and energy that need to be invested over extended periods of time is not easy to come by for us regular folks. The task gets harder as they are competing against the well set (less constructive) routines that we are already very familiar with.

reasons_to_workout

Going to the gym on a regular basis is something that is on pretty much everyone’s agenda. New Year resolutions would become a redundant thing if the concept of ‘losing weight’ or ‘work out regularly’ were to lose its significance. Let’s face it. We live in a society that glorifies the lack of fat. So yes, we all feel pressures to various degrees to lose weight, or maintain our good shape. For some people, the motivation to actually act upon the pressures can be easy to come by. But for most of us, either due to lack of opportunity, desire, will, discipline or time, we find it hard to act upon the pressures. But over the past year and a half, I have found a way that makes the whole process easier. I am going to share it here and hope that it can perhaps help someone in a similar situation.

In the last couple of years, I have been trying on and off to practice the Dudeist way of life. I have been successful on some counts and still working on the others. One of the things I am actively practicing and embedding into my lifestyle is the act of not making any decisions – or to be more precise, the act of minimizing my decisions. I work on the (scientifically proven) belief that the human mind has limited energy, and that making decisions depletes that reserve. So minimizing decisions in my day to day life helps me save my energy that I can then spend on the things that truly matter.

Going to they gym was an exhausting activity in the initial days for me. The reasons were obvious. Apart from all the physical effort I was putting in, the mental effort was equally – if not more – significant. I was making decisions every step of the way at the gym. What time do I go to the gym, how many laps I would run, which muscle groups I would exercise, what weight I would put on, how many reps, the length of the break between exercises – every one of these actions sapped my mental energy, making it harder every subsequent visit. All this, of course, was happening on the assumption that I indeed did have sufficient energy left over after a long day at work involving hundreds of decisions there. It was easy to lose motivation and momentum when you have your own mind working against you, telling you that it needs a rest and does not have the mental energy to push your body.

So the answer to this seemed pretty clear – just minimize the decisions needed. But how? And that answer came to me about a year ago when I joined the YMCA: Group Exercise. The class that I began to go to is called Body Pump. It is a strength training class that works most muscle groups in the body in a 1 hour session. We use weights – bar, dumbbells, hand weights etc – to exercise each muscle group choreographed to a specific song that plays over the speakers. And I have been doing that pretty much every week for well over a year now.

Essentially, in one stroke, the group exercise knocked pretty much all the decision making off my plate! The classes were held at fixed times on most days of the week, so I was already told when to show up. The instructor told us what weight to put on for beginners (with the idea that as you progress over time, you would increase your weights in small increments as you feel comfortable), so that was also taken care of. The number of reps were already decided based on the track choreography (completely doing away with the idea of ‘One More Rep!’). A nominal break of a minute or so between each muscle group was also already established. The instructor would tell us what to do every step of the way for the entire duration of the class, so I didn’t even have to think about what I was going to do- just listen to the instructor and do as she says.

huylc0c

And in addition to all the minimizing of decisions, there is the added motivation of working out in a group. There is a certain energy in the room when a group of people are exercising in rhythm, as opposed to a bunch of individuals doing their own thing at their own pace. And that energy rubs off on everyone in it pushing us all throughout the workout. And for reasons completely alien to me, the demographics of the class that I go to (usually about 25-35) is heavily heavily skewed in favor of the female variety. There are usually a maximum of 3-4 guys – including me – and the rest are all women. And, yes, there have been many many occasions when I have been the only guy in the entire class*. And so, typically, when I am feeling a lack of motivation, all I have to do is just look around me at all the women in the class pushing the bars, doing squats, crunches  – all with an enormous sense of grace and determination. And when I see that, either their energy rubs off on me, or (more commonly) I tell myself, “Well I can’t stop now! All these hot women are going to think I am a wuss!”. And that keeps me going! (Hey whatever works, right?)

*Also, this is me totally not at all complaining! :)

And it would be completely remiss for me to not emphasize the role the instructor plays in making everything work. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been taking these classes under some of the most cheerful and inspiring women I have come across. They are a big reason why I look forward to the classes every week. They have always commanded a presence in the room that draws everyone’s attention to them and makes us all happily follow their lead. They have acted like conductors of a symphony – giving cues and making sure everyone is doing things the right way. And the fact that they do all this with a great sense of grace gives the entire experience a zen-like feel. And I will continue to go the classes as long as possible.

Perhaps I went off on a slight tangent there with my own personal experience of minimizing decisions to make going to the gym easier. But I suppose you get the point. Over the course of the past year or so, I have utilized the act of minimizing my decisions to grow stronger than I have ever been. I have built new muscle all over – an act that I believed was completely beyond me till a year ago. I have, for the first time in my life, developed a routine for physical exercise that I can now use as a baseline to get even more active. And the fact that I am able to say this only after I am 30 years old has no bearing on how good I feel about it.

In my continuing quest to lead a stress free lifestyle, this happens to be the latest benefit I have gained. Your achievement is not going to be any more fulfilling by deliberately choosing a more difficult path. Choosing the easier path almost always involves minimizing the decision making associated with the effort. I mean, look at me. I have grown significantly stronger by putting in almost zero mental effort! I could have perhaps built the same muscle by making all the decisions and putting in all the mental effort to push myself at the gym. But then, what’s the point? Why would I do that if I can get the same end result with practically zero mental effort?

All of us have our own desires and unachieved targets. Trying to get to them all by ourselves is perhaps the most difficult path to take. And many times, just asking for a little help – from friends, family or even strangers – can go a long way in making that path become a lot easier. So why take the long way home when there is a short one available? We typically underestimate the willingness of people close to us to help us. And when help is offered (requested or not), it is always a good idea to accept it and minimize our decision making in the process. And then, of course, you will want to help them in their time of need, thus setting off a positive feedback loop where everyone benefits.

So really, people, when you are trying to get to some place, please just ask for some help. Doing it all by yourself is not going to somehow make that final destination seem any better. And remember to always – always – minimize your decision making if such an option exists to get to the same place.

Previously on NOT MAKING ANY DECISIONS: No Decision Weekend

Winter Diaries from Work Travels

I am writing this post sitting in my car and watching a bunch of workers install a drilled shaft foundation for a bridge in western Iowa by the Missouri river. I am about 120 miles away from home and have been here for the past couple of cold and windy months. I stay at a hotel, drive a rental car and eat out every day. I get to go back home for a couple of nights on the weekends but I am always back here Monday mornings. I don’t even bother to check out of my hotel when I go home because I know I am coming back there in a couple of days. And every time I come back to the room, it is exactly how I left it – empty and desolate. I have lived this lifestyle for long stretches before, and I shall be doing so once again till the end of this winter.

Traveling is an inevitability for a civil engineer. And in the initial stages of my career, these visits typically last several months at a stretch. It means being away from home for long periods of time. It means I don’t get to eat home cooked food, sleep in my own bed, listen to my records, hang out at the neighborhood bar, or even see familiar faces for a while. Yes once a week or two, I get to do most of the things above. But the lack of continuity makes it that much harder to fully dwell in its satisfaction. And in the end, I usually find myself unable to build on the connections back home, and being short on time, opportunity and desire to forge new ones on my travels.

The hotel room is one of the loneliest places on the planet. It is not a prison, yet I feel trapped in the inevitability of my own solitude in it. The hotel may even be filled with such people – each in their own rooms – people who have nothing but the silence of the inanimate furniture to return to in the evenings. And I am one of them. I return to a newly made bed, emptied trash can, new set of towels, vacuumed floor, new soaps and shampoo – all done by nameless, faceless people I never get to meet or thank. Expectations of the paid orderliness has become a part of my everyday lifestyle. But it has always failed to offset the glaring absence of anything living or breathing to come back to. Instead, the hotel room has only provided the comforts that were absolutely necessary – those that would have been noticed only in their absence.

hotel

A Desolate Room with a Bleak View

I have always cherished the privacy offered in the hotel room. But I have also sought for something that is one step ahead of privacy – anonymity. Nobody bothers me once I am in my room, and I truly like that. But for whatever reason, I wish to be not noticed at all when I am in the hotel but outside my room. Perhaps I get a little self-conscious coming back from the field with my boots and clothes caked in mud. So over the course of my stay, I have found a very convenient work around for this. I simply choose hotels that have a side/back entrance with an elevator close to that entrance, and I ask the hotel to assign me a room close to that side/back entrance. With this, I can simply park my car next to the side/back entrance and quietly slip into my room unnoticed. And this one small thing has provided me with a great sense of fulfillment – a satisfaction for a need that I still, however, cannot clearly define.

And once I am in, the reality of the hotel room – in all its limitations and absences – begins to sink in – which is why I have almost always tried to stay away from my room once I am back. The only sustainable activity for me inside a hotel room would be reading a book. And since I can only read so many books, I try to get out and explore – seeking out new restaurants, coffee shops, record stores and watching a lot of movies. Which brings me to my next point of discussion – eating out by myself.

Eating out alone ranks only slightly lower than going back to an empty hotel room in the list of loneliest things I can do. And it is almost as depressing as cooking food and having to eat it all by myself. It was only a couple of weeks ago when my friend asked me a question did I realize something fundamental in the choice of restaurants that I frequent. Her question was simple: “Do you usually sit in a booth/table or do you sit by the bar counter?” I answered, “Usually by the bar counter, unless the place doesn’t have one.” And when I thought about it a little more, I realized that not only do I prefer to sit at the bar counter, but also that I tend to stick with/revisit those restaurants that have the bar counter. But, the question was, why?

I have come to believe that the booth/table includes a certain expectation of occupancy that does not apply to the bar counter. There is a sense of zoning and clearly defined capacity that goes with the booths – a separation of groups, with each group occupying part of or the full table/booth. The larger space available in a booth, I believe, is meant to be occupied, and not to be left alone. So when I see a single person in a booth, the absence of additional people filling the empty seats turns out to be more conspicuous than the guy/girl actually sitting there and eating. And at that point, the perceived expectancy of occupation is not met and I feel that there is something out of place there. Which is what I try to avoid with myself by instead sitting at the bar counter.

The bar counter, on the other hand, has none of these features. It is a continuous zone which does not have a beginning or an end, and definitely no pre-defined capacity associated with it. People of different group sizes can sit at the bar counter with absolutely no perceived expectancy of occupation. People eating alone can sit at the bar counter and the empty stools around them will not appear conspicuous in their non-occupancy. And this suits me just fine. My mind will not worry about the empty seats around me and I can instead just focus on the food.

So yes, I prefer restaurants that have a bar counter and I feel comfortable and not incongruous with my surroundings. But as much as that may provide a slightly satisfactory platform to have my meal, the fact that I am performing the activity by myself is what I seem to carry with me on my way out of the restaurant and into my hotel room.

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Sometimes I just miss being home. I think about kneeling down on the floor, going through my record collection, picking out one of my recent acquisitions and placing it on my record player. As the record starts spinning, I go back to sit on my couch and get comfortable, waiting for the music to take me places. The needle lands on the record setting off a few pops and crackles before the music fades in and slowly takes over my apartment and my world. And just as I am about to give in and go on this highly anticipated journey, I open my eyes – instead making the trip back to the less desirable universe of me sitting on my bed and trying to read my Kindle in my hotel room. I sigh, quickly try to shake off the memory like it was a bad dream and go back to my book.

But it is not long before I make another journey to the more desirable universe. This time I am at my neighborhood bar with my gin and soda, looking at my phone and trying to decide which song to play on the jukebox. I make a selection and look around the bar to see if anyone else I know has showed up. I have already said hi to the regulars and am now talking with one of my close friends who just got a new job. Somebody in the crowd around me then decides to buy a round of shots to celebrate something – or nothing. I call for a Butter Crown. The bartender brings everyone their shots and we say cheers and bring our glasses together. I can already smell the Crown Royal in my shot as I bring the glass to my lips to drink it. And just as I am about to do my shot, I am unceremoniously ushered back to the less desirable universe by a new text on my phone. The Kindle in my hand then makes me aware of my temporal travels to a better place. And the moment of return and the associated disappointment work together to tarnish the memory of the more desirable set of circumstances.

I look at the clock and decide to call it a night. I turn off the lights and slip under the blanket telling myself that I will be traveling to a lot of different universes in the next 6-7 hours – most of which are likely to be more desirable than the one I currently find myself in. And as I close my eyes and let the sleep drift into me, I can still smell the Crown Royal in my shot – and this time I drink it.

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I suppose it isn’t fair to portray my experience traveling for work purely in such a morose, bleak and gloomy manner. I do get some perks as part of it – I get to see a lot of different places in the state; I make significant dough working long hours in the field; all my loyalty programs get a big boost – hotel stays, car rentals, etc – which I have redeemed for great satisfaction in the past; I have even seen plenty of concerts during my travels.

So whether to look at the whole experience as a painful one which comes with its own perks, or as too high a price to pay for getting something that may not be absolutely necessary is up for debate. I am acutely aware of how many things I am missing out on, and how many times I have questioned myself if I’d rather be somewhere else. But I am largely tempted to rationalize my choices and circumstances to make myself feel better, so I will probably pick the former.

I am still sitting in the front seat of my rental car. It has been a few days since I started writing this piece. The sun is out today on a rare clear and slightly warm day. And I am enjoying it pretending to be completely oblivious to the snowstorm due to hit the city in a few days. I am scheduled to work late night tonight and will continue to be on site till the end of this month. At the end of it all, I hope to go home to sleeping in my own bed, cooking my own food, familiar neighborhood and familiar faces, a bigger bank balance, and plenty of free hotel stays and car rental days. And till then I have my desolate hotel room to go back to, the bar counter to feel inconspicuous in, and weekend trips back home to remind myself of what awaits me at the end of my stay here.

PS: A couple of hours after I finished writing this in my car, I learnt that I would be staying here, working through the weekend. So much for looking forward to being reminded of what I do not have – even if it was just for a couple of days.

Lessons from Stressful Times

For someone who considers himself a champion of sorts of the Dudeist way of life, I had to endure a rather stressful 2 weeks in November. What was supposed to be a relaxing month of family time, great food and conversing in Kannada took a turn in an unexpected direction that lead me down a path I had last traversed (and never that far down) during the last 2 weeks of my Master’s program. It was a path that questioned my very own abilities to handle pressure, made me confront, clarify and reaffirm my deep held beliefs about this world, made me realize what it truly means to care for someone else other than myself, and held bare the unbreakable bonds I share with my parents.

The idea was for my ‘cooling down’ for 2015 to coincide with my parents coming to visit me. This was supposed to last for the full month of November. The first two weeks or so went great with my mom making all the food I could eat and we were happily catching up with each other. We even got to celebrate her birthday at the Cheesecake Factory (her choice). My parents saw all the fall colors and their first snow and were visibly excited for both. However, the weather also meant that they could not simply go out as much as they would have liked, which in turn led my mom to ask me to take them to the Amana Colonies on the day after the snow storm.

Long story short, just as we were heading out of the courtyard, my mother slipped on black ice and fell, breaking her ankle in the process. Visits to the ER and the Orthopedic revealed two fractures which would require surgery to fix. The surgery could wait a maximum of 10-12 days but had to be done. My priority immediately after that was to be able to send her home back to India where she could get the surgery done, and recover with all her family around her in our own home. (I was wise enough to have bought them traveler’s insurance here, but having the surgery done here was not an option). So my action item was clear. Cancel the ticket booked for Dec 2nd and book another one for the 25th or so.

But what appeared to be a simple, straightforward task ended up becoming one of the most painful and frustrating exercises I have ever had to go through. Turns out her medical condition required a clearance from the airline prior to departure. This further implied paperwork that had to be filed 48-72 hours in advance of the flights with the caveat that nobody (at Qatar, Etihad) really knew what forms to fill or whom to send it to. This ultimately led me to have to cancel and rebook flights 3 times after being late and/or rejected on grounds that were never specified anywhere in the first place. The fact that all this was happening over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend didn’t help either. In the end, I booked a business class ticket for my mom (with economy for dad) on an Air India flight from Chicago to Bangalore (via Delhi) departing on the 1st of December. And I did this still not knowing if she was going to be allowed to board – even after speaking to half a dozen different Air India people based in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chicago and New York City (each of whom, by the way, gave a different opinion on what paperwork was required, whom to submit to and by when).

But I don’t want this post to be about what happened and what I did. I am writing this more to document how I felt and all the things I realized in the process. So I will dedicate the rest of this post to just that.

I suppose I have to start with lack of control I felt with a lot of what was happening around me. My mom was in pain, airlines weren’t letting her fly, time was ticking down for the surgery, and my dad was getting stressed out. I have to admit that, at this point, the appeal of the divine felt extremely strong – especially when the circumstances facing me were beyond my control. Being able to ‘trust’ or ‘put my faith in’ an unknown force to help me take care of the situation sounded like a great option to just relieve my mental stress. But for someone who doesn’t attribute much significance to the existence of the said ‘unknown force’, I could never get myself to embrace that idea of putting my faith in it. But yes I will freely admit that the appeal was the strongest when the lack of control was the most pronounced, and I can definitely see why it is rather popular. I am a guy who instead believes in cause, effect, and the roles probability and chaos play in determining outcomes. And so instead of praying to something I didn’t believe in, I remembered the lyrics of a song Modern Jesus by Portugal The Man. It goes something like this:

Don’t pray for us

We don’t need no Modern Jesus

To roll with us

The only rule we heed is

Never giving up

The only faith we have

Is faith in us

 I would say that pretty much encapsulated my state of mind at that point. And so I decided to act and ensure I covered all scenarios to get my mom safely back home. I began to get proactive to make sure my mom did not aggravate anything. I decided she was going to be accompanied everywhere she went all the time. She would no longer help with cooking – even cutting vegetables. Essentially I tried to proactively minimize all probability of her getting into a situation that could aggravate her injury. And when she complained she was getting bored, I made her read Japanese Crime novels on my Kindle. (Problem solved)

I would like to say it was all positive and happy after that, but that would be far from the truth. In reality, what the precautionary measures meant was that I was living in a constant fear of something going wrong. In addition to that, watching her in pain was sapping my mental energy and will power to see this through. Add to this the effort I had to put in 24/7 to keep my parents’ spirits up while making decisions every step of the way. And then on top of this, the fact that this stressful situation was a personal one made it that much harder to view it in a detached manner (as compared to, say, working towards a deadline on a project).

It was during the first few days that I recollect driving to the hospital to get some paperwork done and deciding to listen to some comfort music. I picked the first thing that came to my mind – Portugal The Man. Plastic Soldiers started blaring in my car and I started to sing along. It took perhaps 30 seconds or so of the song before I almost broke down. You see, listening to that song reminded me of one of the memorable concerts I had been to in 2015. It reminded me of a very happy and care free time that stood for everything in contrast to where I was driving in my car. And I just couldn’t get myself to embrace that happiness the memory threw out at me. I felt I just couldn’t afford happy thoughts just yet. And that almost got me to break down. I didn’t though – I had to drive after all. But what I did decide was that I would not break down until my parents’ flight had taken off from Chicago. I had this image in my head of watching the ‘Departures’ screen at O’Hare and seeing the flight’s status change to ‘Departed’ and me breaking down right then and there – a consummation of all the hard work I had put in and the relief that came with it. That was the image I had in my head and I decided that I would not break down or lose my faith in myself until then – no matter what. My parents needed me and I would not let them down.

I was extremely fortunate to have just finished a big project the previous week. This allowed me to be at home for over 10 days without having to worry about work. I honestly do not know how I would have reacted with the additional pressures of work, if it had been there. One thing I did find that was uplifting and improving my general mood was to keep chipping away at all the things – small and big – that directly or indirectly helped the ultimate objective. Getting a form filled, getting prints, booking tickets, getting vegetables for home – anything at all – helped lift my mood in increments. It essentially made me feel in a little bit more control. And trust me when I say that being in even a little control is way better than not being in even a little control.

Perhaps one of the big insights I had during this time was in the way my mother rationalized the events. First, when she learnt that she had broken her ankle, her reaction was “Oh why is God testing me and my faith to him like this?”. After that it was “I suppose this is part of the consequences of my Karma that I have to live with it.” And then finally it was, “Thanks to God, this was restricted to just my ankle and nothing else.” In all fairness, yes, it could have been a lot worse, but it could have also been completely prevented. Had I been more proactive in estimating the risk of slipping on ice, I would have put my foot down and made my parents stay at home instead. I suppose that part is on me. So when I was listening to my mother go through the different stages of rationalization of the events, I couldn’t help but find some humor in it. And when I pointed it out to her, my mother gracefully acknowledged the logical shortcomings in her line of thinking and said, “But what to do? This is what we believe in.” And that’s when I realized that if it was good enough for her, and if that made her happy, then who am I to complain? Live and let live.

As the day of the drive to Chicago came nearby, we got packed and took all precautions. I rented a minivan to give her maximum space to rest her leg, along with a wheelchair to help her move around at the hotel and airport. The weather had a very interesting story that day. Starting from Des Moines, the west half of the entire state of Iowa was having significant snow fall (6-10”) and freezing rain. East of Des Moines (and towards Chicago), however, it was all rain. My father readily attributed this stroke of luck to his Guru answering his prayers. (I let him have his moment of peace). However, driving through the rain, it quickly became clear that this was not going to be an easy drive. Torrential rains in the night, coupled with semis spraying near blinding water on the wind screens all the way was not necessarily my idea of prayers being answered. It was the toughest drive I have ever made – more so with the things at stake – and I made it to Chicago safe and sound. My mother later told me that she was too scared to even look at the wind screen during the entire drive. I took that as a compliment.

The next day when we went to the airport and approached the check in counter, it was like I was walking towards a situation where I had no control whatsoever. This was it. I could only be so much prepared but this was where it came to a head. Would they let my parents fly home? As it turned out, yes, they did. And also, apparently no paperwork or clearance was required at all! (Yes I believe I will never have a stronger urge to roll my eyes as I did right then)

So after all that we had to go through the previous 10 days, my parents were set to go home. My mother called me to her side and told me the customary things (‘eat proper food’, ‘take care of your health’, etc). It was then that she also told me those words that reaffirmed the strong bond I shared with my parents. In return, I promised her that we would go visit the Grand Canyon next time she was here – something she has been wanting to see for a while. We then hugged and I said good bye to them.

I was obviously going to hang around the airport until the plane departed. I got comfortable at a coffee shop with a view of the Departures screen and just continued to stare at the screen. About 15 minutes after my parents went through security, my dad called me up. He told me they were all set in their seats and the plane was due to take off shortly. And then he said something to me that he had not told me my entire life. The significance of what he said did not register to me right at that moment. Instead, I spoke for a couple more minutes and wished him a happy journey and then we hung up.

It was only after I hung up and thought about it did I realize what he had just said to me. And it was also at the same time that I saw the flight status change to ‘Departed’. Sitting in that coffee shop, I suppose that would have been the time I was going to break down. But, somehow, I just didn’t. I was mentally so exhausted that I had just become emotionally numb. You could have told me I had won the lottery and I could not have mustered even as much as a smile. And so, I just sat there, finished my drink and went back to my car. I thought I was going to break down in the car, but that didn’t happen either. In fact, I never broke down at all. I do not know if that was supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing – I have never shied away from the act of crying as an expression of my emotions. But fact remains that I was completely numb to anything that was happening around me for the next few days.

I came back to Des Moines the same day. My parents reached Bangalore the following day and my mother had a successful surgery the same day. She is now rehabilitating well at home with my dad taking care of her and is due to return to work in a month or so. It took me a couple of days to gather all my thoughts and get back to my routine. It was also then that I realized the great group of friends I have here in Des Moines – every one of whom helped me out in some capacity or other. Be it helping my mom get to and from the hospital/ER, or just helping me with my own state of mind by just giving me good company – every one of them helped me and I am very grateful to them all.

Looking back, I am fairly pleased with the way I was able to handle the pressure and stay in reasonably good spirits throughout. I was also personally pleased that, even though this event happened during the month that I was scheduled to stay sober, I did not let the pressure make me say ‘Fuck it! I need/deserve a drink!’ when I would have been completely justified doing just the same.

I have always been close to my parents – even more so to my mother. And they have always been close to me – what with me being the only child and all that. But it is testing times like these that truly reveal the depth of that bond. And I was really happy to know that they are still as strong and sturdy as they can possibly be.

And lastly, people usually turn to a supernatural presence to help them through tough times, and if that helps them get through things, so be it. But I realized that, when faced with situations out of my control, I will always proceed with my own belief – a belief that says ‘The only faith we have is faith in us’. And that is good enough for me.

A Short Collection of Intense Moments

In the entire history of mankind, the pursuit of the dark and depressing has never been actively encouraged or even accepted. Yet, the most beautiful art ever produced has been the product of artists expressing loss, pain, solitude, anger and a sense of longing. This apparent contradiction between the source of inspiration and the acceptance of its products by society has diminished steadily for me over the past few years. The dark arts have moved from the fringes of what mankind has to offer to being the very lens through which I now view society itself. I feel no attraction or emotion every time I see a Claude Monet painting, but my whole world came to a standstill when I first saw ‘Masks Confronting Death’ by James Ensor.

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Masks Confronting Death, by James Ensor

Art that convey themes of gloom, doom, mortality, depression and that explore the human condition permeate my inner consciousness to connect with me on a very fundamental platform. I could make a case that the dark arts would connect with all of us in the same way, with the end result depending on whether we choose to fight it or embrace it.

As a consequence of my active pursuit of the dark arts, I have been fortunate to discover and experience a few moments of extreme intensity and fulfillment. Most moved me to tears at that moment in time. And all have stayed with me till today (and very likely for good). These are moments I have to think twice about experiencing again – not because I don’t want to, but because I am not sure I am ready to experience that intensity all the time.

It is important to emphasize that a lack of anticipation of what was coming next was critical to these intense experiences moving me to tears. There were no expectations and all I made sure was to not offer any resistance. And I strongly believe that is why they generated such intensity.

So here goes:

1.ROUTINE (LIVE)by Steven Wilson: When I listened to Steven Wilson’s latest album Hand.Cannot.Erase, I already knew ROUTINE was the standout song. The story was perhaps the most depressing Steven Wilson has ever come up with (even comparing it to Drive Home or The Raven That Refused to Sing). The sadness and absolute despair in the voice of Ninet Tayeb is perhaps what pushed this song beyond the realms of normal consciousness. But that was until I watched the video. The CD/DVD that I had purchased did not have the video to the song and it was not released online either. The place I saw it first was when I saw the band Live in Madison. Steven Wilson introduced the song by stating that he had received feedback from numerous people that this was the most depressing song he had ever made (with his response being “As opposed to what?!”). He made no mention of the video on the screen that was to accompany the song. And then this is what I saw on the screen while Steven Wilson and his band played it live:

To say that I was moved by the video would be a gross understatement. I was very much in tears by the end of it. And so was the entire crowd at the show. I will even go to the extent of saying that my inability to completely break down and cry at that point (largely because I was very self conscious there) will remain as something of an unfulfilled void. The video, the live performance of the song and the entire crowd feeling the same emotions – it was the perfect combination of factors that led to this being one of the most intense moments I have ever felt. And this is what Steven Wilson has to say about the video and how he felt about playing it live:

Amongst the hundreds of songs I have written over the years, ‘Routine’ has a very special place. It’s a deeply sad story of loss and denial, but at its conclusion the clouds lift and there is acceptance at least. Having worked with her on 3 previous videos, I knew as soon as I wrote it that it was perfect for Jess to do something amazing with. Even then nothing prepared me for the organic beauty and power of the film she made, a painstaking labour of love that took her months to produce. When we play the song live I look out into the audience and see people swept away with emotion at the combination of music and animation. To find poetry and beauty in sadness is a wonderful thing I think.

The last sentence ties everything together for me. And I urge everyone to listen to the song, read the lyrics and then watch the video. It will give you a sense of fulfillment that is unavailable in the day to day life that we all lead. (On a side note, the video was not released online till late last year, which preserved the significance of the whole experience for me. And I have still not watched it. In fact, my 2nd viewing of the video will likely be when I see Steven Wilson again this March).

2. Roger Waters The Wall (Movie): Roger Waters did The Wall tour between 2010 and 2013 and took the larger than life production all over the world. It is the closest a Pink Floyd fan today will get to experience the tour from how it was in the 70’s. Of course I can always make an argument that it is even better – what with all the new technology available now. I was fortunate enough to watch it Live at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2012. To this day, it remains the gold standard in terms of a show production. And I highly doubt anyone will ever surpass that.

Roger Waters The Wall movie was part concert footage, and part road trip of the artist driving from his home in England to the beaches of Italy where his father was killed in World War 2. They show the entire concert from The Wall tour with scenes from the ‘road trip’ portion being embedded every few songs. Since I had been to the show myself, I knew what to expect out of the concert portion of the movie. However, I was not aware of what to expect from the road trip portion. I will not spoil a whole lot of the movie here. But will just recall that one specific sequence of scenes that led to me being moved to tears.

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In the beginning of the movie, Roger Waters is seen reading a letter (probably for the 1000th time) that his mother received during the war. It is the letter communicating the presumed death of his father in battle. The place of death is specified to be the beaches of Anzio, Italy. He embarks on a road trip to visit the beach and the nearby memorial. Once he reaches the beach, there is a quiet, melancholic moment when Roger Waters just stands on the beach and stares at the sea, the same letter in hand, and with tears flowing down his eyes. The peacefulness of the moment is punctuated with the sounds of the waves washing up on to the shores, and of the birds calling in the sky. One can sense a feeling of acceptance and closure wash over him as he stands there and tries to imagine what happened 70 odd years ago, how he never knew his father, and how that has come to define who he is today. A very moving scene about loss, the futility of war, and a contemplation of all that could have been, but never was.

And then the scene faded into the start of Comfortably Numb.

What can I say? That moment when the scene showing Roger Waters at the beach faded out and Comfortably Numb started playing – that is what I live for. That is the kind of fulfillment that keeps me looking forward to the next day in my life. That transition could not have been planned better. I have listened to that song thousands of time in my life. I know every note, every pause and every word of that song. And I also know exactly where it comes on the album. And I am so glad that the previous scene swept me away so much that I forgot that this song was coming up next. Needless to say, I was moved to tears right at that moment and through the song. I remember that night in Chicago when Roger Waters played that song Live. Everybody just shut the fuck up and just watched in awe. Nobody sang along. And Dave Kilimister played the guitar lead to perfection – without improvising. I suppose there are some songs you don’t sing along to and some guitar leads you do not improvise. Comfortably Numb is one of them.

And sitting in that theater, I felt an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction – of having experienced something truly wonderful and fulfilling.

3. The Line of The Horizon (poem) by Maria Petrovykh: Poems have never been my go-to medium to explore art. Largely because of my aversion to popular poetry themes of nature, beauty, love and social/historical commentary. This aversion unfortunately shielded me from the poems that did deal with themes that I connect with. And it was last winter – in the middle of working outside in the fields of rural Iowa – that I found this poem about old age and death. Mortality is a theme that has led me to numerous bouts of contemplation. And this poem touched a chord in me that I still feel every time I read it.

The Line of the Horizon

Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh

It’s just how it is, it’s the way of the ages;
years pass away, and friends pass away
and you suddenly realise the world is changing
and the fire of your heart is fading away.

Once the horizon was sharp as a knife,
a clear frontier between different states,
but now low mist hangs over the earth
—and this gentle cloud is the mercy of fate.

Age, I suppose, with its losses and fears,
age that silently saps our strength,
has blurred with the mist of unspilt tears
that clear divide between life and death.

So many you loved are no longer with you,
yet you chat to them as you always did.
You forget they’re no longer among the living;
that clear frontier is now shrouded in mist.

The same sort of woodland, same sort of field—
You probably won’t even notice the day
you chance to wander across the border,
chatting to someone long passed away.

I still vividly recollect my reaction to reading it the first time. Everything around me came to a halt. I forgot where I was and what I was doing there. And all my attention was focused on the words of the poem. And it felt like the last four lines took me across the horizon to give me a glimpse of what lay beyond, before gently bringing me back – wiser and in awe. It was then that I truly understood what Ian McEwan had written about poetry in his book Saturday. 

But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill….

Reading a poem that gave me a glimpse of the world beyond, and being able to truly appreciate Ian McEwan’s words in the process, generated an experience that felt like a piece of jigsaw falling into its place. It was like a new perspective gained, or reaching a vantage point that offers a bird’s eye view of the vagaries of life – and watching the horizon get increasingly blurry with the passing of time.

I do not recollect how long I was in that state of mind. But I have gone back to this poem a few times over the past year every time I wanted to get a glimpse of the world beyond. And every time, I have come back wiser and with a newer perspective. But as time passes, I know that some day my trip beyond that horizon will not include a return journey.

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I can only hope that in the months and years to come, I have the opportunity to discover and experience an intensity and fulfillment such as the ones I have outlined here. I do believe that as long as I continue to seek, I shall be rewarded. And as this world progresses to an uncertain future, I do hope that society works to break down the perception of the dark arts, and that more and more people gain a sense of wonder and awe that is unavailable in their otherwise routine lives.

 

 

 

 

 

A Wild and Exhausting Summer

I am exhausted. And I may even be writing this just to get that point across. I am also writing this on my 30th birthday – which is apparently a significant thing. Apparently, I am now old, can be officially called an ‘Uncle’, and as my parents and relatives subtly remind me – my prospects in the arranged marriage market have now taken a deep hit. I am also writing this 2 days after my birthday celebration which involved the highest rate of alcohol consumption and (rather short lived) general feelings of invincibility I have experienced in the last 5-6 years – a combination that culminated in my very own “I AM A GOLDEN GOD!” moment (OK maybe not that dramatic). I am also writing this after a full day and a half of (completely necessary) recovery. But more importantly, I am writing this at the end of a wild, wild summer.

I AM A GOLDEN GOD!!

The idea of seasons took its time for me to get used to. It was at least 2-3 years after my arrival in the US that I realized that I cannot be as active in the winter as I am in the summer. And more importantly, that it was OK not to be going out and traveling all the time in the winter. At the other end of that realization was my effort to be as active as possible during the months of April to October. It is a change in my lifestyle that I have come to accommodate over the past few years, and am now actually quite content with the new mental states that I find myself in at various times of the year.

For the past few years, ever since I started working, I have tried to reach a particular point in my mental state around late October/early November. It is a state of mind wherein I can honestly tell myself, “I have done everything I possibly could this summer, and now I am ready for the winter.” I have been largely successful these past few years in achieving that state of mind around October/November – just in time for the winter to set in.

This year, I reached that state of mind in the first week of August.

This summer has been one long continuum punctuated with concerts, music festivals, weekend travels, night-outs at bars, work, poker, games of Settlers of Catan, games of bags (a.k.a Cornhole), lots of records and CD shopping and of working out. It has had its moments – from very intense and stressful to very peaceful and relaxing. 4 trips to Chicago, 4 to Kansas City, twice to Wisconsin (including my 4th visit to House on The Rock is as many years), 3 music festivals, 3 night-outs at an establishment that I’d rather not specify (one of which culminated in my rather memorable 530 AM question “Is that the fuckin’ sun?“), 30+ bands seen live, a month long stay in a resort at Storm Lake (for work), God only knows how many gallons of alcohol consumed, late late nights (more like early mornings) at the neighborhood bar, God only knows how many new friends made, and all this while working on a high profile highway project in the state of Iowa.

This is probably the point I post a meme summing it all up:

Yes. It was really exhausting. And I would do it all over again.

In all seriousness, I reached a point of complete exhaustion the first week of August. I had been on a non-stop schedule of weekend travel/concerts/general fun for over 3 months. And after my trip to Milwaukee the first weekend of August, I just felt I was done – which was really understandable. But the fact that I did not have any concerts/travel scheduled for the next 3 weeks made the timing just spot on. So the break was most welcome, which I spent doing exactly nothing. (OK I will admit I continued my obsession with Japanese crime novels during that time.) And towards the end of August, I got my energy back and was traveling around all over again.

In the end, I look back at these past 6 months with a sense of satisfaction that I haven’t felt in a while. This satisfaction came with a new found appreciation for just being fortunate enough to have the time, resources and physical ability to do all the things I did. It also came with a sense of pride for realizing that my passion and curiosity for exploring what’s out there are not going away. It came with the true understanding that I am really only as old as I want to be. It also came with the realization that I have a group of friends that I can truly depend on, and a neighborhood that I can call my own. This is the closest I have come to feeling like I am home here in the US, and I truly feel fortunate that I have all this.

My 30th birthday celebration was probably the last ‘exhausting’ activity this year. My concert calendar is now empty till January, and I am going sober for the next 4-5 weeks. But perhaps, more importantly, my parents are going to be here a week from today for a month. What better way to do the cool down lap this year than just feasting on mom’s food? There may yet be one final weekend trip this year where I get to take my parents out.

But all in all, I can confidently say that yes, I am indeed ready for the winter.

No Decision Weekend

As part of my continuing effort to lead a stress free lifestyle, I decided to try something new. I decided that I would not make any decisions for a full weekend*. This was largely inspired and based on the ideas of ‘Decision Fatigue‘ and ‘Ego Depletion‘. In a nutshell, those two ideas convey the fact that the human mind only has a limited pool of energy or resources that can be drawn to evaluate options and make decisions on a day to day basis. It also follows that after a long session of decision making, our ability to make correct (or any) decisions decreases significantly because of this mental fatigue. I guess in a way, this is a fairly elaborate academic way to explain the seemingly banal idea of ‘getting stressed out’. But you get the point. Making more decisions takes away more and more energy from your mind leaving you tired at the end of the day. Activities such as doing nothing or sleeping help replenish that source of energy for use at a later time.

Minimizing the number of decisions we make is a fairly popular approach to reduce stress levels. Steve Jobs and President Obama both implemented this idea in their everyday lives. And so do professional poker players. I just decided to take it one step further. I decided to make absolutely zero decisions for a full weekend. On Friday morning, my plans for the weekend consisted of me driving to Chicago that afternoon to see Mark Knopfler at the Chicago Theater, stay over at my friend’s place that night, meet another friend Saturday evening, and drive back home Sunday afternoon. Apart from this, I had no additional ‘plans’ to do anything at all. So it was then that I decided to make absolutely zero decisions from the time I left home till the time I got back. To be more specific, I decided to not think about the options in front of me when confronted with a decision. Just pick something and go with it if I really have to make a decision.

So that was how my No-Decision-Weekend started. I listened to BBC or NPR for the whole drive, switching between them only when I got really bored with one of them. Never bothered to explore the dozens of other music channels that Sirius XM had to offer. Reached Chicago and went to see the concert. Mark Knopfler was great, though I wish he had put in some effort – any effort – to actually sing the lyrics to Sultans of Swing instead of just speaking into the mic. But he more than made up for it by singing (and singing well) Your Latest Trick, Romeo & Juliet and my personal favorite On Every Street. So I left on a high, went to my friend’s place, had a beer, did small talk and went to bed at 130 AM. NDW Friday was a success.

NDW Saturday started with my friends asking me if I would be interested in an Apple festival that was taking place in Lincoln Square that morning. Clearly, there was a decision being asked of me. And I firmly declined to make it. I would go wherever it was they wanted to go. So, I found myself in Lincoln Square in a farmer’s market styled festival with lots of apples and apple related dishes – everything from apple pies, apple donuts, apple sauce, apple on stick, caramelized apples, and a bunch of other appley things that I had no idea about. Now I like apples myself but was never a fan of the sweet stuff that Americans tend to make out of it – like pies for instance. Never liked them. But all that changed because my friend declared that it was time to eat apple pie and drink coffee. Clearly I was not going to be objecting to that as that would require me to suggest an alternative and that involved making decisions. So I got an apple pie with some whipped cream and took a bite of it.

Holy fuck!

You know, there are some times when just the act of eating something makes you feel like all is well with mankind and that everything will be OK in the end. And that at that moment, all that mattered was that you were eating and enjoying that thing. I don’t particularly remember thinking of the war in Syria and believing that it was all going to be OK in the end. What I do remember, however, was how that piece of apple pie just melted in my mouth and made me fall in love with a dish that I had actively avoided for a long time. Of course, there was still the coffee to be had, so we went into a coffee shop/bakery and got a coffee. I also found something that looked interesting. It was called a ‘Savory Tart’. I had never seen anything like it before, so I bought it. It was essentially a piece of bread/bun with some small amount of cheese along with some caramelized onions and red peppers on top of it. I took a bite of this ‘Savory Tart’.

Holy fuck!

It tasted just like the mega-super-awesome-all-award-winning-epic-unparalleled-phenomenon ‘Bread Toast’ that I used to eat at all the Bakeries back home in Bangalore. 6 years on, this was the first time I had found something even remotely resembling the Bread Toast from back home. Apple festival was clearly a great success!

But we still had an hour to kill after the festival. So we walked into a record store nearby. That record store was clearly planted right next to the festival just so I did not have to make another decision on where to go next. It is known. I had never been to this record store previously. It was a decent sized store with neatly organized records along with CDs, cassettes, movie DVDs and video games. I started filing through the records with absolutely no idea of what I wanted (which is how I usually go about buying records anyway). An hour later, I had a problem on my hands. I had 4 albums and had to pick 3 to stay under a ‘reasonably exceeded budget’. I had to make a decision. So I just totaled up 2 different combinations and went with the one that cost me more. Ended up getting Illmatic by Nas, Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and Songs in A&E by Spiritualized. Problem solved! (Sorry Slowdive!) But it was only when I went to the counter to pay for them that I had perhaps the most interesting conversation that whole weekend.

There was a guy and a girl at the counter who were managing the transactions. The girl (who was around my age) called me over and I handed her my records. She started punching numbers into the computer.

Girl: It is going to be $80.

Me: OK. Here is my card.

Girl (running my card): Do you want a copy of your receipt?

Me: No

Girl: Please sign this for me.

Me (signing): Here you go.

Girl: Do you want paper or plastic?

Me (still not making any decisions): Anything is fine.

Girl is now picking out a paper bag.

Me: I am not making any decisions today.

Girl (putting the records in the paper bag): Then who is going to make them for you?

Me (pointing at the paper bag): Well apparently, you just did!

We all laugh (including the guy waiting behind me in line).

Girl: If you come back later, I will help you make some more!

I have to admit. That last comment by the girl caught me completely off guard. It took me a few seconds to process what she had actually said and evaluate its potential implications. And it didn’t help that there were a bunch of people waiting in line behind me to make their payments. And by the time I realized I still hadn’t responded to it, she was already processing the next guy’s transaction. I guess I should have asked her her number or something. Or perhaps when she was getting out that day. But oh well, maybe next time.

We then went to Devon St, where the Indian settlement was, for lunch. I already knew where I was going (Udupi Palace) and what I was eating (Bisi Bele Bath). I also knew what I was going to order for my friends (who are American) – Lunch Thali. Once the lunch thalis showed up, I had half a mind to just sit back and watch my friends eat all the different dishes in no particular order or combination – hoping to see them eat HapLa dipped in Paaysa, or mixing the chapathi with all the other items there to make a big fat burrito. But I ended up explaining to them about all the items and what should be eaten with what and in what preferred order. They were able to appreciate it and enjoy it.

That evening, I met up with a friend who was clearly told from the beginning that I would not be making any decisions that night. She suggested we go to a particular bar and met up there. There she asked me if I wanted to go to a different bar, and I simply followed her. At the new bar, she asked me if I wanted to go to another bar and I said OK. I knew a few spots that I would have preferred myself in Chicago but I was clearly not making any decisions that day. So we ended up at the Liars Club on the edges of Lincoln Park. Before we went in, she described the place as a ‘divey night club’. I knew what a dive bar was (one of them is my home away from home away from home), and I knew what a night club was (though it had been over 2 years since I had been to one). But a ‘divey night club’? That sounded curious.

And when I went in there, it was exactly just that – a divey night club! I would not have put it any differently myself. Great place with people of all walks of life – from bikers to hot college girls to a couple where the guy was old enough to be the girl’s father (Hey! Fuck you if you are judging!). And all the people just seemed real. Just like a good dive bar! A place where you could have a good conversation, where the bartenders did shots with you, and here you could even go to the dance floor at the end of the bar to dance to 80’s music being played by the DJ! (Special shout out to that mega-awesome Hispanic guy in his late 40’s with a dress shirt, dress pant and formal boots dancing all night long, making up his own moves and not giving one single fuck to other’s opinions about his dancing. If anything, a bunch of girls went next to him to imitate his dance moves and some went one step ahead and began grinding with him! What a man!)

Great place overall! Thoroughly enjoyed it and stayed there till bar close. I ultimately returned home to my friend’s place at 330 in the morning and went straight to sleep. NDW Saturday was an unequivocal success!

Sunday started with me waking up at 7 AM with no hangover. (Smug face!) I had to leave at around noon, so my friend and I went to get some coffee and breakfast at a nearby cafe. Had a great conversation for the next couple of hours and then I left Chicago. Reached home in Des Moines at around 6 and was thoroughly satisfied with my No-Decision-Weekend trip.

I suppose I achieved my overall objective of not allowing any form of stress to develop over the weekend. This was my second attempt at such a ‘break’, with the first one being done in the company of His Holiness as he elevated his enlightened self to Dr. His Holiness. Stress free vacations are very rare and extremely underrated. Deciding to not make any decisions during a vacation can be very liberating. It does not mean that you are not in control. It means that you have no expectations and nothing at stake. And if you have nothing at stake, nothing can possibly go wrong. In a way, my weekend worked out like the first half of that Jim Carrey movie ‘Yes Man’. I pretty much just said Yes to everything my friends suggested, and it made me experience new and awesome things I otherwise would never have come across. So maybe there is some truth in that movie after all!

Screw all the decision making and the unfulfilled expectations that come with it! As The Dude would say,

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* Well, technically I suppose that was a decision, but fuck you if you are going to get all technical about it.

Dear America, Let’s Talk About LEGAL Immigration

Dear America,

I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien

I’m an Englishman in New York

That was Sting singing in 1987. This is not 1987, this is 2015. I am not Sting. I am not even an Englishman, and I may not even be living in New York, but I am one of the many many aliens – more specifically, I am a ‘legal alien’- that moved to and currently live in this country. Rest assured, I do not come from a different planet with the objective of taking away your natural resources and destroying mankind. On the other hand, I am just another human being (of the homo sapien variety) who came to this land from half way around the planet about 6 years ago. (It is not me who is saying I am an alien. It is the US Government who says so and who reminds me of it every time I fill in some paperwork.)

No Not this Alien.

My story is like the many many stories you have heard over the past decades and centuries. It is the story of people coming here in search of a quality higher education and in search of a better, more liberal lifestyle than their home country. In the six years I have been here, I have had a great number of memorable experiences and befriended a large number of wonderful people. Everyone of them have been nothing short of being super nice to me. I have lived a lifestyle I never knew I could ever afford. And notwithstanding the sacrifices I have had to make in choosing to remain here, I can confidently state that I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here in the United States, taking in everything this country has to offer.

And all along the way, I have vastly contributed to you by working on the design of a number of highways and bridges critical to your infrastructure. I have paid my fair share (about 35% of my income) on taxes and have been a law abiding person (or alien, if you so prefer). I have supported and continue to support a lot of global and local businesses (including the neighborhood dive bar) with all the money I spend.

I am repeatedly told that I have a lot of great opportunities for me to pursue in my career in this country. I am told there are even more opportunities here lying ahead that will help me explore the world and live the lifestyle I have always wanted. And my mind savors the possibility of that future when I can do that. But alas! That is where the fairy tale ends and the nightmare begins.

You see, as far as the Government here is concerned, I am still an alien. I maybe a ‘legal’ alien, but an alien nonetheless. And I am treated as one. I am willing to acknowledge that yes, I am coming from a different country and I need permission from the host to continue my stay. Unfortunately, the issuance of that permission involves the process of transforming from the status of an ‘Alien’ to that of an ‘Immigrant’ or ‘Permanent Resident’. And as you may be aware, this is a general nightmare for all the ‘aliens’.

What is it that you said? You are NOT aware of the nightmare? Oh, my bad! Of course you do not know! That is because nobody ever talks about the ‘legal’ immigrants in this country. I am sure you are fully up to date on the latest proposals to stem the flow of ‘illegal’ immigrants from the southern border with Mexico. Of course you are! All you have to do is switch on the news and you will find all you ever need to know about how the influx of illegal immigrants is creating a national security issue and how it is killing American jobs. You will learn the full gamut of opinions on this matter – from granting amnesty to the illegal immigrants to making them pay fines to deporting the bad ones to deporting all 11 million of them. Of course everyone wants to build a wall of some sort on the US-Mexico border. You know all about that for sure.

So yes, you know all there is to know about ‘illegal’ immigration and all the impacts to the US economy and security that are associated with it. But you have absolutely zero idea about the ‘legal’ immigrants and what we go through. We are the people who sought a legal way to come to this country. You have no idea of all the shit we had to go through to just get a visa to come here and study. And we worked hard every step of the way – always staying (with an abundance of fear) within the legal framework. We came here to not just consume the better life on offer, we also came here to contribute our services and skills. We have worked hard after we came here and we have made a good life out of the opportunities that came our way.

So in a way, we have achieved the American dream – until our visa runs out that is.

You see nobody is paying any attention to us people who seek to migrate to the United States legally and who have all our paperwork in place from the beginning. Did you know that, as a citizen of India, I need to wait for a total of up to 15 years in order for me to get my status changed from ‘Alien’ to ‘Permanent Resident’? Did you know that right now 2 out of every 3 applications for a highly skilled immigrant visa are being denied? Did you know that you can come to this country, get a Master’s or PhD degree in one of the top universities here, get a job requiring a very specific skill set, be a top performer at the job, and then just have to leave all of it within a year just because you happened to be among those who did not get their visa approved? Do you even know that the highly skilled work visas are granted on the basis of a lottery? Yes. Absolute chance. No merit. Do you know that during the Clinton years, the H1B visas (highly skilled workers) was hiked to 4 times what it is now? And did you know that the number of Green Cards issued annually stayed the same, creating a massive massive backlog (of 10 years) for people who have been waiting in the ‘legal’ line?

Of course you have no idea about all this. Why would you? Why would the media care about this? They don’t see any immediate detrimental impact to the society. It is much easier for them to stick with the ‘They took our jobs!’ narrative instead. Our work here is not measured on our contribution to the society and economy. It is measured in terms of number of American jobs lost. Never mind that the special STEM related skill sets that many of us ‘legal’ immigrants bring with us is something that this country sorely needs to sustain itself. Also never mind that that demand is impossible to be met from just domestic supply. None of this matters to the media who are only focused on exposing the ‘plight of hard working Americans whose jobs are being taken away by immigrants!’ How dare we provide the skills and services this country so badly lacks? And how dare we demand that we be given due recognition for our work by granting us permanent residency?

What about the politicians you ask? Well, what about them? Barely anyone has made any noise. This is a low risk low reward issue for all politicians. Can they do anything? Of course they can. They can do a number of things that can easily fix this mess that is the legal immigration system. But they just don’t. And because they haven’t done anything worth while for decades together, guess what? The system has been ripe for abuse!

Oh the irony.

The incentive to come to this country is so great for a lot of people that you inevitably have people who game the system, find its loopholes, and willfully exploit them for their own benefit. Oh and there are a whole bunch of them. Did you know that you can have one single person apply for a visa through up to 6 different companies? That is 6 different applications for the same person, in case you didn’t figure out. Way to increase your odds, right? Or what about those people who come en masse to the US to attend a makeshift/fake university for the sole purpose of becoming eligible for a work visa application? Did you know that these pseudo degree holders stand the same chance of getting approved for the visa as a legal immigrant who is a PhD holder from MIT? Did you know that each country has a fixed quota for allotment of green cards every year? On what is it based, you ask? Well, here is what it is NOT based on: Merit. I come from a country that currently has a back log of about 10 years. That is 10 years after you file the application, which usually happens 2-4 years after you start working, which in turn happens after I have finished my 2-5 year schooling. I will let you add up the numbers for shock value. So what is it based on? Again, the answer is not merit. Many many times, a person (or alien) who doesn’t necessarily have any significant skill set to contribute to the society stands to get his/her Green Card within a matter of months just because of their specific nationality. Is this fair? Is this helping this country? And guess whose low paying jobs these unskilled Green Card holders are taking away?

So yes, the politicians and the media have neglected the legal immigration system long enough to enable its long running abuse. You know the disappointing part? It is easy to fix. It is infinitely easier to fix than the ‘illegal immigration’ problem that everyone ‘wants’ to fix. But nobody is talking about it. Actually, I take that back. I did go through all the 2016 Presidential candidates’ stance on the issue of immigrants. Most of them didn’t have one – legal or illegal. Some had the usual rhetoric about building a wall and securing the borders. But there were two candidates who actually gave specifics on the issue of ‘legal’ immigration. Both said the same exact thing. They spoke about raising the minimum prevailing wage for the positions that call for immigrant workers. This is definitely a step in the right direction to address the abuse of the system. But it is no way sufficient. More needs to be done to bring awareness around this issue and to call for Congress to pass laws that will reform the system for those who wish to migrate to this country legally and contribute to its growth and culture.

Oh you ask who those two candidates are? One is Bernie Sanders and the other is Donald Trump. Yes, a Democratic Socialist and an arrogant Buffoon are the only two people who have even got some kind of an idea about what needs to be done to bring workers into this country legally. (Not sure what that says about this country’s politicians, but that is another story for another day).

So my dear America, yes this is the state I and thousands of others like me find ourselves in. We have a highly specialized skill set that this country badly needs. We all achieve and live the American dream until our visa runs out. But our contribution is always measured in terms of the number of American jobs lost. We are subject to being the victims of people who abuse the system we are trying to respect – a system that has been neglected for far too long. We go out of the way to ensure that we live here ‘legally’, yet no one is paying attention to our needs. All the while when the whole country is looking to find a ‘solution’ to those who come here ‘illegally’.

Yes, we know that is necessary as well. But please, do not pretend that we don’t exist. We do, and we are only trying to contribute. So please pay us some attention and in the process, help us help you grow?

Yours Truly,

A Legal Alien

Bobby Jindal and the ABCD

There is a colloquial term that is used among the people from India and the Indian sub-continent. It is used to describe and/or identify children of Indian immigrants in America. The term is ABCD, and it stands for American Born Confused Desi. (Desi being a generic term for the people from the Indian sub-continent). For the most part, this term is used as a tool for mockery and satire. But from what I have seen, there is a lot of truth to what it stands for. And when I dug deeper into Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Governor and 2016 President hopeful (!), and what he had to say about where his parents came from and how he identifies himself, this post began to write itself. But as I gave it more thought, this post took a different direction altogether (as is evident from below).

But first with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Just so the reader is aware, Bobby Jindal isn’t his birth name. His parents named him Piyush Jindal, but then he changed it to a more ‘American’ sounding name when he was 10 – based on a character from Brady Brunch. He then went on to renounce his religion – Hinduism – in favor of a more accepted American South’s Catholicism. Apparently, the Bible made a big impression on him when he read it under the sheets in his bed as a kid (since he had to hide it from his parents). On the other hand, I would like to know if he even made the effort to read a single Hinduism religious text, and if he did, then what he did or did not like about it. He has publicly made statements to the effect that he wants to be called American, and not Indian-American. (There is some validity to this, but that is a separate discussion in itself). He has a self portrait of a white man in his office. Yes, that is true. And his campaign slogan now appears to be ‘Tanned, Rested and Ready’.

Bobby Jindal’s Self Portrait featuring White Guy

Bobby Jindal Self Portrait featuring even Whiter Guy

Now here is something about an ABCD who was in my circle of friends a couple of years ago:

He told me I reminded him of Rajesh Koothrapalli (the ABCD character from Big Bang Theory) in front of a bunch of white people. (Oh the irony!) He actively distanced himself from where his parents were and about his (clearly forced) visits to India. He once pointed to an Indian origin anchor on TV to me and said, “Hey man! Look on TV. It is one of YOUR people.” He once pointed to other fellow Indian immigrants on the street and remarked they were ‘Akshay’s cousins’.

Apart from the fact that that was the only time anyone has ever made a racist comment to me here in America, it is extremely ironic and disappointing that it came from a guy with the same ethnicity. My first reaction was disbelief and anger. (Needless to say, I no longer have any contact with him). But over time, I have come to understand a far more fundamental issue in play among children born to Indian immigrants in general. It is what eventually manifests itself in racist remarks to one’s own kind, ridiculous campaign slogans, as an active distancing from one’s own community, and the ‘C’ in ABCD. I am not just referring to the simple case of the identity crisis, but more importantly, to how the ABCDs deal with and respond to them.

I cannot even begin to comprehend what children of Indian immigrants have to go through growing up with kids that have zero resemblance to how they look. What kind of bond do they form with the other kids? How do the other kids react when they see a non-white, non-black, non-Asian and non-Hispanic kid in their classroom? Are they curious? Or do they already have pre-conceived opinions and look at him weird? Do the other kids make fun of his/her skin color? How does the kid with Indian parents answer the question, “Where are you from”? And what do the parents tell the kid at home? How do the parents bring him up? Do they bring him up to be an American? Or have they decided that their kid is going to be brought up with what they have understood to be Indian values? How do they find a balancing act? What kind of resources do they have to guide them? Are they even aware of the impact their potential ignorance has on the kid?

Once we begin to find the answers to questions like these, only then can we claim to truly understand how it is to be the child of Indian immigrants. These are hard questions. And the answers to them generally point to a set of circumstances where the kid is the easy subject of ridicule, bullying and casual (if not explicit) racism to the point of being ashamed of his own skin color. It points to a situation where the parents have very little to no idea about what is happening or how to deal with it. It paints a picture where the kid is torn between what he is told at home and what he is expected to be at school. They tell us a story of the parents bringing up the kids in the same way they would if they were in India -and being blissfully unaware of the repercussions. They tell us the story of the brown kid who ultimately learnt that he needed to be an ‘American’ – in style, looks and thought, not just in passport – in order to fit in with the world around him.

And it is at this critical juncture that a lot rests on. More specifically, what does the kid do about all of this? The ultimate destination is clear – be more American so that you are considered part of the world around you instead of being seen as the stranger in a strange land. But the path to get there is less evident. The kid sees two major paths to get there: embrace all the things that America has to offer while remembering your own ethnic identity and heritage, or completely reject and deny your ethnic heritage and identity while going all out to prove to everyone around you that you are an American.

It is not too hard to see which path is more easy for the child to take. An adolescent kid with a natural propensity to rebel, with no real guidance around him, whose main priority is to be accepted among his school friends who are not his own skin color, and who has ‘decided’ to be more ‘American’ has very little to choose from. Rejecting and denying where his parents came from, what his ethnicity is, what his religion is, what he eats, and which languages he speaks is – in the child’s head – the easiest way to ‘become more American’. And thus the kid reaches his destination not by embracing what the American lifestyle and freedom has to offer, but by rejecting who he is, how he looks, and all the values his parents believed in.

Popular portrayal of the ABCD has not particularly helped matters. It has almost always involved showcasing a guy or a girl in their youth, having conservative Indian immigrants for parents, and is struggling to ‘break away’ from their conservative ways to explore the ‘freedom’ that America has to offer. This has pretty much been it. I am unaware of any popular portrayal of the ABCD where there are bigger questions – identity crisis, bullying, casual racism, alienation, lack of counselling – asked of being an American born to Indian immigrants. There is no ‘why’, just a ‘what’.  And that is rather unfortunate.

And so we have a world where American kids born to Indian immigrants feel the need to reject the values taught at home in order to be accepted among friends at school. Over time, this manifests as a deeper hatred and shame towards people of one’s own kind and everything that is associated with them. And this is what leads to brown-skinned people believing they are white, changing their religions, finding Indian food too spicy or refusing to eat anything that doesn’t have beef in it, making racist remarks to people of their own skin color, and actively distancing themselves from anything remotely associated with India and other Indians.

When one looks at Bobby Jindal or my ex-friend through this frame of reference, the perspective changes from mockery and ridicule to one of sympathy and understanding. I may never actually change my opinion about what kind of a person they are now, but I do so with a better understanding of how they got to where they are. Without a shred of doubt, I am extremely glad that neither me nor my parents had to go through this daunting experience. Being born and raised in India until the age of 25, I had my identity and values well set before I made my move here. As I have slowly integrated myself with what America has to offer, I have embraced those aspects that do not conflict with my core values, and did so without forgetting where I came from. But I was able to do so only because I knew who I was and what I stood for before I got here.

I started writing this post sitting on my high horse passing judgment and mockery at a set of people whom I thought were just simply bad. But as I now conclude it, I am glad that I have a better understanding of why they are that way. I will even go to the extent of admitting that I myself may not have turned out any different than them if I was brought up here. So I can only hope that a lot more awareness is spread around on these aspects of growing up as children of Indian immigrants in this country. And at some point, maybe, we will have a generation of children who are indeed proud of where their parents came from and all the good things that India has to offer.

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PS: It would be summarily incorrect to assume or stereotype that all children born to Indian immigrants end up this way. Or that all parents have no clue about how to deal with such situations. The point being made here is that more often than not, the conditions surrounding a kid growing up are conducive to such an outcome.

How I Learnt to Embrace the Amazon Kindle

Works of art and the method of their consumption had been two sides of the same coin all the way up to the 90’s, and perhaps even later. Music meant sitting in front of a music system, picking up a cassette/CD/Vinyl and inserting it into the device, hitting play, and observing the artwork and/or lyrics while the music played on the speakers. Movies meant dressing up and going to the theaters, or playing it on the VCR/DVD players. Books meant hardbound or paperback copies that came with the characteristic smell that made romantics of everyone who ever got the pages close to their faces and took a deep breath. The ability to exercise this sense of touch (and sometimes the sense of smell) in the consumption process appeared to validate and complete the experience. It generated a sense of fulfillment for the consumer that reinforced its legitimacy. As a result, the attachment between the consumer and the work of art was always identified with the mode of consumption.

This was the kind of world I grew up in. And needless to say, I had a strong opinion on these issues once the seemingly disruptive forces of technology came knocking on everyone’s doors. These opinions became even more pronounced after I started earning, as the money allowed me to purchase more music and books. (I currently boast of a sizable vinyl and CD collection as well as a half decent sized bookshelf stocked with books of all types.) Now though I did embrace the mp3 player simply because it made music portable, I had a hard time accepting the idea of an e-reader for a book.

The idea of reading a book on an electronic device was just completely unacceptable to me. I had always denounced the act of reading books on the computer. E-readers was never going to be any better. Convenience could not and should not trump quality of experience, I had propositioned. When someone asked me my opinion on the e-readers, I used to tell them something along the lines of the following:

If I pay for a book, I want to be able to own it. If I want to own it, I need to be able to see it and hold it. I also need to be able to put it on display in a shelf as a form of a statement of my taste in literature. In addition to this, I love just the act of holding a book in my hand and turning the pages and being able to physically connect with the work of art through the sense of touch. I will never get that fulfillment with an e-reader.

I held on to that point of view for the longest time – even, admittedly, after being fascinated with the Amazon Kindle’s features and clarity. Then last summer around Labor Day, I took a solo vacation to Colorado. I carried with me two books: Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and GGM’s Love in the Time of Cholera. However, two things came in the way of me reading those books. Firstly, I soon realized that I didn’t want to read something that was very demanding of my focus and attention – definitely not after a long day of hiking and/or driving. I just wanted something that would take me away for an hour or so without me having to put in too much of an effort to appreciate the niceties of the book. Secondly, it really was an inconvenience to carry both the books around everywhere I had to go. Even when I did want to read them, it was under circumstances when I did not have them on me. And that quickly became frustrating.

The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is highly recommended

The frustration was not primarily borne out of my wrong choice of books to carry, or the inconvenience it caused me to carry them around wherever I went. I was frustrated simply because I had missed out on the act of reading. That was it. It was not that I ended up being too busy or tired to read. It was just that I did not have access to the right books and a more suitable mode of reading them.

That vacation made me strongly reconsider my position on the idea of an e-reader. I quickly realized that, when it came to reading books, my main objective should be to simply read more. As trivial as it may sound, it is the plain and simple truth. I realized that the mode of consumption does not change the actual content  that was consumed, or equally significantly, its quality. Unlike the Mp3, whose quality is discernibly lower than what you would get from a CD or a vinyl, the words in a book remain the same regardless of what format you read it in. I even visited the sub-reddit for Amazon Kindle to see if people had brought forward any negative impacts on their reading habits after its purchase. On the contrary, what I found was unanimous positive feedback on the impact of the Amazon Kindle on the user’s reading habits. Every one of them specified that they had simply begun to read more frequently and longer – or in other words, they had simply begun to read more. 

And that, tipped the scales in favor of me getting my own Kindle Paperwhite. I got it as my parents’ gift for me on my 29th birthday. And since then, there has been absolutely no looking back. I have finished more books in the few months since then than I had in the previous year or more. I have discovered  new genres of fiction I very likely would have never made the effort to purchase a physical copy of. The prices are at least 30-40% cheaper than at a retail bookstore, if not practically free of cost. The convenience of being able to purchase a book during a moment of inspiration did wonders to my reading habit. And the device itself performs its function in an impeccable manner. It is very easy to hold and operate (most common being the act of navigating to the next page) when compared to holding a physical book in my hands at an awkward angle. The best feature of the Kindle may perhaps be its lack of too many. The focus is completely on the reading experience. Even the features it does have do not impose themselves on the reader, thereby minimizing any potential distractions.

So yes, I have done a full 180 degree turn with regards to my opinion on the idea of e-readers. Once you realize that it’s the act of consumption that matters, not the mode of consumption, you will be able to appreciate what the Kindle (or any other e-reader) can do to your reading habit. In fact, I was so excited with my Kindle that I got one for my parents and one for my 13 year old cousin when I went back home to India earlier this year. I will leave it to you to guess what the impact has been on their reading habits.

The simple fact is this: I bought a Kindle and my reading habit has grown exponentially. I am able to procure books for far lesser prices and I have explored new genres which I otherwise would never have. Equally importantly, I have not stopped reading or buying physical copies. I still do have a book shelf with dozens of books on them, and I will continue to buy hard copies in the future. But the way I read it no longer dictates if or what I read.

So if you are one of those who is of the opinion that physical copies are the only ‘authentic’ way to read a book, I would urge you to reconsider. If you are someone who has been considering getting an e-book reader but has not been sure, I strongly recommend you to take that next step and get it. You will be extremely satisfied with your decision. And if you are someone with a Kindle already, you will know what I have been talking about till now.

As far as recommendations go, I would personally recommend the Kindle Paperwhite ($119) over the Kindle Basic ($69). The primary (and maybe only) differentiator is the backlight in the Paperwhite version which makes the reading experience significantly better generally, while also allowing you to read in the dark. I also find that there is absolutely nothing of extra value in the Kindle Discovery ($199). The next generation of Kindle that will have any real value addition would be the one where they introduce color. But till then, the Kindle Paperwhite is more than a satisfying product. (I do not have any experience reading on the B&N Nook, so I offer no opinion on it.)

So please, go ahead and build your reading habit. This world needs a lot more book readers to prevent the mass lowering of IQ. Regardless of whether it is teenage vampire fiction or a William Gibson novel, or a book on the art of making craft, please go ahead and read. And if getting a Kindle is going to help it (well, duh!), then please go and get one. It will be a great investment for you and all your family members.

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PS: As an FYI, I still do not find the act of reading books on the computer/laptop a satisfying experience. It still strains my eyes and, though the latest formats (.epub etc.) have done a good job of replicating the physical book look, my reading habit would have taken a negative hit if I had to go down this path.

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