Going Back Home After 3 Years

I finally went back home to Bangalore after a gap of almost exactly 3 years. I had never been so long away from home prior to that. Even with my parents visiting me in between, that long gap didn’t lose its significance on me. I stayed there for 4 weeks, visiting friends and family and spending time with myself at home. I had no real agenda apart from that and the 4 day trip that my parents had planned. Mostly, I just wanted to sit at home, eat my mom’s food and not worry about work or any of the many other aspects of my existence. But there was perhaps one thing that I was indeed looking forward to.

I just wanted to talk to people around me in my own language. I just wanted to talk in Kannada.

Perhaps the biggest handicap I have faced after moving to the US – and especially Iowa – is the complete and absolute absence of my ability to converse in Kannada with the people around me. Simply put, there isn’t a single person I have met in all of Des Moines who speaks my mother tongue. I am sure they exist, but the probability of them being someone I get to meet, develop a friendship with, and have conversations with them in Kannada on a regular basis is minuscule. Maybe if I lived in a big city, I would have stood a much better chance, but not in a city the size of Des Moines. And as a result, I have had to accept and live with the handicap of being unable to talk in my own mother tongue. It has never been problematic – considering my command over the English language – but it is something that I have constantly missed.

I have mostly dealt with it through secondary means. I speak to my parents, my relatives and a couple of my friends over the phone in Kannada on a regular basis. I also watch Kannada movies on Youtube or Videogirmit, listen to old Kannada songs, and read Kannada books. But none of this has ever come even remotely close to giving me the fulfillment I get from talking to someone in Kannada in person. Which is why when I went back home, the thing I was most excited about was just being able to talk to the people around me in the language that is my mother tongue.

Everybody from the immigration officer at the Bangalore airport (who began questioning me in English and happily changed to Kannada once I gave my responses in Kannada), the local grocery store guy who was trying to find me a pack of cards, the owner of the local medical shop (whom I have known since I was in high school), the guy serving me extra sambhar for my Idly at the fast food Darshini next to the bus stop, all the neighbor aunties who had differing opinions on the changes in my body mass, the old man at the small clothing shop where I bought part of my new wardrobe, the waiter at Vidyarthibhavan, all the nice folks of North Karnataka who made my vacation-within-a-vacation a memorable one, the guy who helped me get a Vodafone cell number on my Verizon Galaxy S5, the BMTC bus conductor who gave me a free ride to the next stop when he realized I was on the wrong bus, the auto driver who had Ambarish pictures all over his vehicle, the guy who cut open an extra coconut (eLaniru, or coconut water) for free because he felt he had given me a smaller-than-average coconut the first time around, the guy selling liquor on credit at the local shady bar, the bartender at Arbor Brewing Company (to whom I bragged about having visited the original one at Ann Arbor in Michigan), the guy who gave me all the snack goodies at Subbamma Store, the local gym owner who had a hard time understanding why I needed the membership only for 3 weeks, my friends from Undergrad and before, my family members of all ages and degrees of separation, and before I forget, Blackie – the creatively named black colored dog of the Black Dog fame –  I took great pleasure in speaking to every one of them in Kannada (including Blackie).

It was something that I had taken for granted all the time I was in Bangalore, and something – whose absence – I refused to acknowledge after moving to the US. During my visit, I sometimes almost forgot that this ‘return to how it used to be’ was only a temporary thing and something that I would very soon not have in my daily life. But I suppose that is what happens with the things I took for granted. I tend to trick myself into thinking it was all going to be OK every time I got to experience what I had missed for long. But the eventual and inevitable return – from nothing more than a vacation to the true consequences of my choices – never fails to expose the glaring deception my mind has me in. And I find myself looking to the past or to possibilities in the future when I get to experience first hand all the things I grew up taking for granted, and whose absence I am yet to come to terms with.

I am now back to talking to people over the phone in Kannada, watching Kannada movies, listening to SPB and S.Janaki’s old classics, and reading a Kannada translation of Kalidasa’s Meghadhootha when I get the chance. I do not know when I will get my next chance to converse in person in Kannada, but when it does happen, I will very likely just trick myself again into thinking it’s all back to the way it used to be – at least for the duration of that conversation.

And then I will go back to reality.

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The irony of choosing to write this in English is not lost on me. But such is the circumstances I chose and find myself in.

2014 in Review: All the Concerts – Part II

First of all, I find it hard to acknowledge that I am actually typing a part 2 to anything. I mostly always intend to write a part 2 and just leave it at that. So, yay! I guess… With that out of the way, here below is my recollection of the 2nd half of the concerts from 2014 – a year that proved to be the best one yet for both quality and quantity of concerts.

The entire lineup of Fleetwood Mac

                    The entire lineup of Fleetwood Mac

12. Fleetwood Mac at United Center in Chicago, IL: What do you know? Never thought I would see this band Live ever in my life and I now got the opportunity to do so twice within a year. This time Christine McVie joined the group and the lineup was complete. All the songs I had longed to listen to Live – all of them – I finally got to do so. Everything from ‘Over My Head’ to ‘Say you love me’ to ‘Everywhere’ to my personal favorite ‘Little Lies’. Christine sounds fabulous Live and Lindsay Buckingham is such an under-rated guitarist. Mick Fleetwood is up there with the likes of George Clinton and Mick Jagger – people who are simply incapable of understanding the idea of growing old! Last time I saw the band, I wrote that this was a band which had nothing left to prove. And now with a second massive tour within a year, these people who are in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, are showing the world that passion and energy defies age. I am just glad to have been here to witness that.

13. Creedence Clearwater Revisited at Downtown Denver, CO: Absolutely accidental and free concert that I had not planned in any way. Come to think of it, I didn’t even know that half the original band was touring with a new vocalist and guitar player under the same acronym. I essentially just happened to be in downtown Denver on the first day of my solo vacation exploring Colorado.And that was also the day they had a food festival going on with CCR as the headlining group for the musical entertainment. Me. Not. Complaining.

Creedence Clearwater Revisited in Denver

Creedence Clearwater Revisited in Denver

Any apprehensions I had about the vocalist was easily put aside. John Fogerty himself couldn’t have done any better. It was about a 90 to 100 minute show that featured all their best hits – ‘Born on the Bayou’, ‘Proud Mary’, ‘Have you ever Seen the Rain?’, ‘Fortune Son’, and a 20 minute rendition of ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ that included a bass solo and a drum solo. What a way to start my Colorado vacation!

14. Seun Kuti at Englert Theater, Iowa City, IA: If you know Fela Kuti, you probably figured that Seun Kuti was one his 10,000 sons from his 1,000 wives. If you don’t know who Fela Kuti is, you WILL find out. Wait. You are still reading this? Go Google Fela and make your life worthwhile. Anyway, with Fela dead and everything, I was making a remark to my close friend (same guy who strongly suggested Ziggy Marley and who also helped me discover Fela) that we may never get to see an Afrobeat concert ever. And right next week, we found ourselves front row to see Seun Kuti. I regret I was not sufficiently inebriated for this adventure but it was still a memorable show. I was mostly glad to just be able to attend an Afrobeat show. And that it was Fela’s son made it a huge bonus! Fairly similar music and style as his father, Seun Kuti had still carved out his own identity from his music. I clearly remember everyone dancing the entire time at the show – never a dull moment in Afrobeat!

15. Handsome Family at Englert Theater, Iowa City, IA: No TV show had got me captivated to an extent that The Wire did a few years back. Damages and Breaking Bad came close but still lacked that final punch I longed for. In came True Detective. I felt that punch right the first time I heard that opening track by Handsome Family. I still cannot think of a better song that would set just the perfect mood for the show than ‘Far from any Road’ by Handsome Family. I was an instant fan. The show at Englert Theater was particularly unique as the audience was seated ‘on stage’ with the band occupying a smaller portion of the stage. It was as close as I would ever come to an Unplugged concert – except I was probably even more close to the band here. I do not believe a more intimate setting is possible for a concert. In any case, they played everything from ‘Sister’s tiny hands’, ‘Bottomless Hole’, ‘Giant of Illinois’ and of course ‘Far from any Road’. Before they played the True Detective song, the band remarked something along the lines of: “Before True Detective, nobody really knew us. Now we can afford shoes!” It was perhaps an exaggeration – both of the state of not-so-popular musicians and the impact of a primetime HBO show feature can have on a band – but it definitely showed the couple’s (yes they are husband and wife) passion to just make dark and depressing songs. After the show, I was able to personally thank them for making such dark and depressing themed songs. They are a great sounding alternate country band and you should definitely check it out. ‘Through the Trees’ would be the album I would start with.

16. King Crimson at The Vic in Chicago, IL: If someone had asked me if I would ever see King Crimson Live about a year ago, I would have placed a sizable bet  against it happening. There was simply no way a band that started in the 1960’s, progressed through the decades with an ever changing lineup and whose frontman was close to 70 years old could ever reform again – let alone hold a multi-continental tour. But, they did just that – AND they had Gavin Harrison in the drumming department. No fuckin’ kidding! The show was more of a symphony than a concert. The kind of symphony wherein a group of highly highly highly highly highly highly talented and skilled musicians played some of the most intricate pieces in rock history in a manner only those present could appreciate – and feel blessed. Yes. I wanted them to play a bunch of songs that I liked from the KC era that I was familiar with. I suppose they did. But that took a backseat to just the sheer awesomeness of their musicianship. There have been very very few times that I have been left in awe to that extent when it came to musical concerts. I have been to many Indian classical music shows where the coordination and skill displayed by the musicians is impeccable. And this seemed to surpass even that. The highlight of the show was clearly the band playing ‘Lark’s Tongue in Aspic’ – both parts. With 3 drummers on stage, the coordination and timing had to be spot on – and it was more than just spot on. Gavin Harrison’s drum solo will always be remembered. Robert Fripp essentially just sat in a chair all show looking at a screen scrolling music notes and played the guitar to perfection. Jakko Jakszyk was the vocalist for the touring band and he did a great job at channeling the angst in the show ending ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. Perhaps the only man even trying to put on a show was Mel Collins on his sax. But all this doesn’t seem to matter when one is enveloped by a quality of music that is simply too audacious even to attempt to play Live. It wouldn’t have mattered if you knew who or what King Crimson was. If you had just showed up, the band would have still blown your mind away.

As a side note, I have to mention that I was easily the youngest guy in the whole theater. I was younger than at least half of the median age of the rest of the crowd. I was sitting between two old men who were discussing their experiences of seeing KC Live on their tour in the 70’s. I suppose music does transcend barriers. But am also left to wonder if the next generation will ever even know who or what King Crimson is.

17. St. Paul and the Broken Bones at Wooly’s in Des Moines, IA: Southern soul music has never been a genre that made me feel like I should explore. SPBB changed all that one day when I heard ‘Call Me’ on the radio in my car. The only thought in my head as I heard it was ‘I need that CD and I need it right fuckin’ now!’. And I got the CD within an hour and listened to it on a loop for god knows how long. My friend described the singer’s voice as ‘He opens his mouth and Ottis Redding comes out!’ and he is absolutely right. Great voice from a lead singer who was brought up to become a Pastor/preacher. And you can see it in his Live performance – it really did look like he was preaching his songs to the crowd. But the reason I fell in love with this band was mainly due to the bassist. There was such an intense moment of inspiration for me when I heard through their album, that I picked up my bass and started playing it non- stop till my hands couldn’t take it any more. And I hadn’t played my bass for over 4 months at that point. I met the bassist outside the venue and was talking to him. He told me that him and the band members try to listen to new music all the time – to keep feeling inspired. And I responded to him by saying, ‘Well, just know that it is now you who are inspiring others with your music.’

18. Pearl Jam at Pinnacle Center in Lincoln, NE: I would pay to watch Eddie Vader SPEAK in a Live setting. So when the band played for close to 3 hours and over 25 songs, everything was a bonus. ‘Black’ has always held a close spot in my life. And I have discovered other gems as I have explored their other albums. The concert itself was not what I had hoped for – mainly because I got seats in the nosebleed section.

Pearl Jam from nosebleed section

Pearl Jam from nosebleed section

That pretty much set a bar on how great my experience would be. No complaints about the sound, but there is only so much one can enjoy seated at the back and top of an indoor arena. I believe there is one more Pearl Jam album in the works in the near future and another tour as well. Will make sure I make amends during that tour.

19. Amon Amarth at Wooly’s in Des Moines, IA: I will openly admit that heavy metal as a genre in itself is a ship that sailed a long time ago. I will fondly remember headbanging to a lot of metal bands in my adolescence but I am past that phase now. I still do go to metal shows if there is a familiar band playing in town. But that is pretty much it. I had never put in the effort to actively explore unfamiliar metal bands. Amon Amarth proved to be an exception. I started listening to the band only after I came to know that they would be playing in town. And I am extremely glad that I put in the effort to listen to them. This is a band whose ‘metal’ aspect of their music is purposeful and direct – and not present just because they are a heavy metal band. Their riffs and hooks complement that metal sound. And I was an instant fan. The concert was high energy and never a dull moment. I found myself headbanging and jumping around like I hadn’t done in ages. The lead singer even humored the crowd by asking them to repeat the lyrics after him, and then proceeded to say “This is death fuckin’ metal! It doesn’t matter what the lyrics are!” and then ripped straight into the chorus of Pursuit of Vikings!

I have to note that there was a certain spark of inspiration in me when the band played Pursuit of Vikings and Runes to My Memory among many other of their best songs. I truly felt alive in those moments. And that was when I realized that of all the genres of the bands I go to watch live, heavy metal is still the one with which I feel the strongest and the most raw connection. Perhaps I should start listening to metal again after all.

20. Trombone Shorty at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: Never heard of him before I learnt that he was playing in town. The band was the main act for the show with St. Paul and the Broken Bones. But it didn’t matter one bit after the band took stage. The quality and upbeat nature of the music was more than sufficient to make it a great show.

21. Antemasque at Majestic Theater, Detroit, MI: I was heartbroken when I learnt that The Mars Volta had disbanded. But I suppose Omar grew tired of putting out only 10,000 albums that previous year and wanted to make more music. So the end result was The Mars Volta reformed under a different name and with a different sound – with Flea on bass no less. No prog rock anymore, just straight up infectious punk. It appears that Cedric’s voice is something that suits punk just fine. And with Omar’s minimal guitar riffs, this is a surprisingly easy to listen record with a lot of great hooks. The show was high energy – with most of the energy coming from Cedric who was pretty much in his own world. Except perhaps for that one time when he had the bouncers kick a couple of idiots in the crowd out of the show. I was just glad that I got to see Omar and Cedric back together and making music and playing concerts again. It doesn’t matter under what name or what genre they make their music, because the quality is always going to be there.

22. Future Islands at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: One more band I wasn’t familiar with until I learnt that they were going to be in town. Their latest album SINGLES is what introduced me to the genre of synthpop. It was also one of the albums I listened to plenty of times during, and which set the mood for, my solo Colorado trip. The show was fabulous with their enigmatic frontman showing the crowd why he is considered one of the best at putting on a show. ‘Like The Moon’ is one of the top 5 songs I discovered in 2014. Minimal beats and a haunting bassline with dark vocals and great melody. Will be watching the band again in 2015.

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So there it is. My best year so far for concerts. My schedule for 2015 is building up slowly but I don’t think it would ever get near or surpass 2014. Steven Wilson, Wilco, Tame Impala, TV on the Radio, Weezer and more area already on the books and hopefully more will get added on.

2014 in Review: All the Concerts (Part 1)

Clearly, this is becoming an annual event for me: recollecting and reliving the highlights from the previous year. This post may be 4 months late, but this is me not being concerned about it. 2014 was the best year for me so far with regard to concerts. The quality and quantity of concerts was so good that I even contemplated writing a mid-year review just so my annual post wouldn’t get too long. Since that did not happen, here we are gain. I am still splitting this into two posts. In any case, this is still a long post below – and only because I have so much to recollect and say.

1. Wolf Eyes at Mission Creek Festival, Iowa City, IA: My first true noise concert. This was held in the basement of the Yacht Club in Iowa City and started at 1 AM. The stage was about 8′ X 5′ and about 1 ft off the ground level. The crowd (including me) was exactly 3 ft away from the band. And I was also about 2 ft from the blaring speakers. The music (if you can call it that) of Wolf Eyes grew steadily in cacophony as their set went on. The noise of the guitar, the energy and intensity of the guitarist and vocalist (both of whom were jumping around so hard that they kept bumping into each other), and just the image of the noise-maker (that’s what I will call him) having a soundboard for a fanny pack and a gas mask on his face was sufficient to make my night. Their best song (again, if you can call it that) was their last one when all they did was create a 20 minute ‘jam’ with noise of all types and intensities. By the time that last jam hit its climax, I had an extremely strong urge to take the nearest chair and start smashing everything around me with it. And the fact that I couldn’t do so will remain as one of biggest regrets of my life. Such is the power of the music (again, if you can call it that) of Wolf Eyes. And it is a compliment to their art in as much as how it made me feel that night.

And if you have no idea what I am talking about, here is  sample Wolf Eyes song (again, if you can call it that):

And here is a pic of the noise-maker with the world’s most awesome fanny pack.

The World's Most Awesome Fanny Pack

The World’s Most Awesome Fanny Pack

2. Warpaint at Mission Creek Festival, Iowa City, IA: I watched this band under strange circumstances. I essentially thought it was the opening act until I found out otherwise the next day. I fell in love with their sound instantly – not having heard any of their songs before. This is the band that essentially introduced me to dream pop. A 4 piece all-female lineup with great bass sounds, haunting vocals and a sound that I had been seeking all my life without even knowing it. This is one of the few times you fall in love with a band after you hear their music for the first time – and that too in a live setting. Become a big fan of them since then and have their double LP on vinyl now!

Shout out to other Mission Creek acts including Circuit des Yeux (a one-woman project of something I cannot define but which I keep find crawling under my skin) and Earth (guitar drone, and then more guitar drone).

3. Eric Johnson at Wooly’s in Des Moines, IA: An hour and a half of great guitar work from one of the most well respected guitarists in the industry. Some of his songs brought back great memories of me sitting in my hostel room with His Holiness and my roommate and listening to Cliffs of Dover. I have never had much respect for guys like Yngwie Malmsteen who mostly just exhibit their shredding abilities. Sure that is a skill to admire but nothing ever comes out of it. Eric Johnson is at the other end of the argument – a man who CAN shred but does so when it makes the songs better. His focus is first on melody and harmony – not on showing off his skills. On stage, he was a very affable character who revealed that he was actually born in Iowa and that his grandma still lives here.

4. Mogwai at Wooly’s in Des Moines, IA: When my cousin first made me listen to Mogwai under certain ‘elevated’ conditions, I just hated the band. I didn’t want anything to do with it ever again. A year later, I gave the band one more chance and bought their ‘The Hawk is Howling’ album. Since then, there was no looking back. The sound of Post rock is pretty much epitomized by Mogwai. And so I was all smiles when I learnt they were going to be playing at Wooly’s. I particularly fell in love with their then latest album Rave Tapes and was listening to it on a loop for the longest time. No Medicine for Regret still stands as my personal favorite of the band’s entire catalog. They did not play that song at the concert but there was one moment of true inspiration that I will always remember. It came at about the 1 min mark when the song’s chorus (if you can call it that) just begins. I had listened to that song dozens of times by then. But that moment when the band reached that note LIVE and that transition into the chorus happened, I went into a different world. And I didn’t even need to be high. Of course, the highlight of the evening for me was ‘I am Jim Morrison, I am Dead.’ Very satisfying to see them Live.

I am Jim Morrison, I am Dead

I am Jim Morrison, I am Dead

5. Envy Corps at Wooly’s, (and 8035 Music Festival) Des Moines, IA: A Des Moines/Ames based band that you never have and would never hear of (unless you are reading this now). The lead singer would easily win the ‘Sounds Like Thom Yorke’ contest – even if Thom Yorke himself participated in it. The band’s It Culls You album is probably their best and deserve so much more credit than they are are currently getting. One of my best discoveries from last year. Ended up seeing them twice last year. Would do so again at the first opportunity.

6. Guided By Voices at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: I had never been to a punk concert before. And I was not familiar with the band either. But I decided to check it out. In the end, this was the longest concert (over 3 hours with 3 encores) I had ever been to. There is something authentic about a band with 50+ year old members play a straight up punk show with high energy – especially as the singer consumed a full bottle of Jack Daniel’s on stage during the show. It was probably the attitude that made it a good show. I will probably never invest in exploring the band as such but I was just glad I went to the show.

7. Cake at 8035 Festival, Des Moines, IA: When the lead singer of a band quotes from xkcd during the interlude of one of the songs, it is something worth remembering for a long, long time. But Cake’s John McCrea had the entire crowd in his complete control even without the help of xkcd. Performing the band’s songs – the equivalent of deadpan humor in movies – you could almost believe he was an evangelical leader preaching to a crowd of eager minds. ‘Sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell’ was perhaps the best example of this. This was perhaps the best portrayal of putting on a great show without having to try too hard.To me personally, the band’s best feature is the bassist and the way he incorporates  bass lines with an appropriate groove to complement the rhythm of the songs. Perhaps, one of the other reasons I will remember this concert is because I got to hear a cover of War Pigs where the iconic guitar solo was played with the trumpet.

8. Ziggy Marley at 8035 Festival, Des Moines, IA:  I have only listened to reggae music in passing. Always enjoyed it and found it very relaxing, but had never put in the effort to explore it any deeper. But I suppose I was sober all that time I listened to reggae (as pointed out by a good friend and a Ziggy concert veteran). So when Ziggy Marley played for an hour and a half on a hot summer day, I made sure I was sufficiently inebriated. And how glad I was to have been drunk then. So much so, that I now strongly believe that everyone on this planet should get drunk and/or high and attend a reggae concert as a matter of general principle. If it is not on your bucket list, it should be. And if you do not agree, I am OK if you are shot dead right now. In all seriousness, that hour and a half was the most carefree I have been in a long, long, long time. No worries, no concerns, no expectations, no obligations. For that hour and a half, everything was just right and I just knew that I was where I was supposed to be at that point in time. This is not even an exaggeration. I have been to many shows where the music has taken me places. This one just made me believe everything was awesome wherever I already was.

9. Conor Oberst at 8035 Festival, Des Moines, IA: The Ziggy Marley show was followed with Conor (of the Bright Eyes fame). And what a contrast it was. Nothing wrong with the show. Just that the sad and depressing music was in stark contrast with the I-feel-awesome music of Ziggy. Yes, I am a big fan of sad and depressing music, which is why I went into a profound gloom during his show. It was easy too – considering how drunk I was. Good show, I guess. But don’t remember it for the right reasons in hindsight.

10. Portugal. The Man at Brenton Skating Plaza, Des Moines, IA:  It had been a while since I encountered an album that had me listening to it for months on end. But Portugal. The Man’s ‘Evil Friends’ filled that void. And that August night in East Village, I had one of the most memorable experiences at a concert in recent history. This concert went from being good to great for the most basic of reasons: great tunes, good performance, and sufficient inebriation. That was it. Songs that you could and wanted to sing along to, dance to, a crowd of people around you with the same intentions- all under the influence of sufficient amount of alcohol. That was all it took. The fact that the band started the show with a cover of Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 and ended the show with Baba O’Reilly ended up just as a bonus. This is a band that I will be following very very closely for the rest of my life (or their’s). And I cannot recommend Evil Friends enough. Special mention to the artwork on the album (I have even framed the album cover from my vinyl).

11. Grouplove at Brenton Skating Plaza, Des Moines, IA: Was not at all familiar with this band, but they were actually the main act when Portugal. The Man played. By the time PTM’s show was done, I was already at a point where everything else was a bonus. But Grouplove did not disappoint. Same ingredients: great tunes, catchy music, great to sing along to (if you knew the songs) and great to jump around or dance to – all with a crowd of fellow inebriated folks.

In part 2 I will be recollecting Fleetwood Mac (full lineup!), Handsome Family, King Crimson (!), CCR, Amon Amarath, Seun Kuti, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Trombone Shorty, Pearl Jam, and Antemasque.

Discovering New Music: A Fan’s Perspective

When I visited home last month after a gap of 3 years, I found out that my 13 year old cousin had suddenly become very interested in listening to music. She now owned an iPod and was quite enthusiastic about the whole idea of listening to music. So I asked her what she was listening to. The ensuing conversation went something like below (keep in mind she is only 13).

Me: So what are you listening to?

She: One Direction! I love that band!

Me: OK. Sounds like about the kind of music a 13 year old would listen to nowadays. Come to think of it, I was very much into Backstreet Boys and Boyzone back when I was your age.

She: Yes, One Direction is really good!

Me: So what other music do you listen to?

She: I really like One Direction! I have all their albums!

Me: That is good that you really like One Direction. What other bands do you listen to?

She: I just listen to ALL their songs on repeat! I really like them!

Me: For how long have you been listening to One Direction?

She: About 5 to 6 months now.

Me: Have you listened to any other English music in this time?

She: No. I really like One Direction!

Clearly, this conversation was going nowhere. I could have asked her how she did in her exams, and her response would have been, “I really like One Direction!”. So I gave up on the subject. Instead, we decided to play some kind of a passive card game along with her classmate – another 13 year old girl (who incidentally introduced my cousin to One Direction).

And before we started our game, I told them I was going to play some music from my phone. I told them it will be playing in the background and we can start playing the game. I put on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and on came “Give Life Back to Music”.

It must have taken about all of two minutes before both my cousin and her friend remarked, “What band is this? This is really good music!” I just smiled and told them who it was. And last I heard, they was listening to ‘Random Access Memories’ on a loop.

There are two very significant lessons to be learned just from this one seemingly trivial (and admittedly hilarious) incident. But before I go into that, an important thing to understand is this: What was seen with my 13 year old cousin is also highly representative of the mindset of a large fraction of the population when it comes to listening to and discovering new music.

The first of the two lessons is about the act of getting stuck in some kind of a comfort zone. For my 13 year old cousin, it was with the music of One Direction. For a lot of other people at different stages in their life (age-wise or exploration of music), it is something else. One of the simplest ways this phenomenon manifests itself is perhaps also the most common: A person who has spent a few years of their life listening to (and coming to like) a specific genre typically finds it very difficult to put in the effort to actively explore other genres by themselves. (As an extension, there are even some people who tend to stick to the few bands that they know of and rarely put in the effort to explore other bands – even within the same genre). A little thought into this and into our own habits can reveal the different manifestations of this particular aspect in the way we ourselves listen to music (past and present).

Essentially, it is the sense of comfort that familiarity brings with it that can make a listener continue to seek out what they already know. As a corollary, the perception of the effort that one has to put in to actively and consciously go out of this comfort zone and explore new genres of music is sufficiently big, such that few actually cross that barrier. This phenomenon is more significant than what we are willing to acknowledge.

The second of the two lessons is to do with those instances when a person actually crosses that barrier and discovers new music. By default, any person who has become really obsessed with a particular band or genre of music has had to have gone through the process of actually discovering the said (at the time) new genre. So, if we go by the previous proposition that it is very difficult to get a listener to actively explore new music, how then have most people discovered new music and genres so far?

The answer is simple. Most people discover music passively. 

It is typically a moment of inspiration that drives people into exploring a new band or a new genre of music. Perhaps you heard it over the radio on your way to work and it struck a chord with you; maybe you heard it being played at your friend’s place and you wanted to borrow his CD; it came up on one of your Pandora stations and you instantly liked it; or you heard this song on a movie soundtrack and you just had to know which band it was; or a band/playlist that your favorite artist (or anyone you respect) recommended.

All the above examples of listening to music and discovering something new that you like has a common thread running through it. In none of the cases were you actively, consciously, proactively seeking out to explore new bands or genres. Instead, in all the cases above, you just happened to be listening to music when you had absolutely nothing at stake. There was no pressure on you from those sources of music to ‘like’ that band. Nor were there any expectations of what would come out from the act of listening to music under those circumstances. Ultimately, there was no real ‘investment’ or ‘effort’ required by you in order for you to experience that moment of inspiration.

This is essentially the act of listening to music ‘passively’. And it is this process that leads people to discover new music and explore new bands. The strongest connection between a fan and an artist is made when there is absolutely nothing at stake. And it is only after such a connection is made that the fan begins to invest their time and money on the artist. They buy their albums, go to concerts, buy merchandise, etc. And what’s more? They even recommend the band to their friends thus starting a positive feedback chain. All banking on a moment of inspiration that mostly happens when there is nothing at stake.

And this is exactly what happened with my 13 year old cousin and Daft Punk. She formed a connection with the band in a situation where there was no pressure of any kind whatsoever. ( I proceeded to give her a playlist of what I thought she should explore and after a couple of days she came back and said, “I really like this band. I think it is called Led Zeppelin.” Mission accomplished).

This post would be incomplete without pointing out the fact that there is a small fraction of people who do not fall under the category mentioned above. These are people who do not necessarily need a ‘nothing at stake’ situation in order to experience a moment of inspiration. These are people who actively go in search of new music and looking for new recommendations – being fully aware that there are many yet-to-be-explored bands out there that are creating music that you would love. These are also usually the highest spenders on music. And if you are one of them, chances are you have friends around you who are like that as well. But this should not imply that a majority of the population is like that.

Music may appear to be everywhere. But the true gift of music is yet to be given to most of the population, and that moment of inspiration should reach out to as many people as possible. It is a win/win situation.

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As the title indicates, this post is about the fan’s perspective of discovering new music. But what about the music industry? And the artists themselves? This I intend to explore in the next post – hopefully in a week’s time.

Lessons on Building a Music Collection – Vinyl and CDs

For about 10 years or so, I spent barely anything at all on purchasing music. My family has always had a good sound system at home. But almost all my music purchases happened before the internet came to India. Following the advent of the internet, I maybe bought a grand total of 3 albums in the next 10 years. The rampant music piracy and sharing of files on P2P websites and servers made it that much easier to not spend on music that I could get for free. It was only when I came to the US, got a job and started working, that I found myself being drawn to the idea of actually ‘owning’ the physical form of music. It was also around the same time that I was particularly influenced by Steven Wilson’s constant glorification of the vinyl record. I began to dream of having my own record collection and record player. I romanticized the idea of holding an old LP in my hand and watching it spin as the music started playing. Its appeal kept growing every single time I thought about it. So I invested in a good sound system and a record player. And then I started buying used and new vinyl.

Today, after about 3 1/2 years, I can proudly state that I have with me about 300 vinyl records of bands from diverse genres and generations. In addition to this, I also own close to 200 CDs, a third of which were just simply given to me by my close friend when he moved. Yes, I am proud of the current state of my collection and all the new music that I have discovered along the way. But this post is not about me bragging about what I have or don’t have. Instead it is about the things that I learnt during that journey.

The first record I bought was AC/DC’s Back in Black brand new. Fabulous album and I was already familiar with many of the songs on it. I had been listening to it for about a week when I went to a used record store. And then I bought about 4 records there – easy considering that used records are just so inexpensive! I was super excited about it and began to play those. Back in Black went to the shelf and I only played it again last week after a gap of 3 1/2 years. A week or two later, I was at another record store and bought some more. The previous batch of records then went to the shelf. This process repeated itself over and over.

By the time I realized what was happening, I already had close to 200 records in my shelf including complete box sets of classical music – Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, you name it. But I had only explored the full depths of the music on less than a quarter of those. I have listened to every single record I own at least once. But the joys of exploring the depths of a song were lost on me as far as most of my collection went. Following this realization, I stopped buying new music for a few months and instead focused on exploring whatever I already had. That proved to be a masterstroke and over the course of the following few months, the music on many of the albums truly revealed its inner depths to me. And listening to it in the high quality audio that only the vinyl can provide, I was duly rewarded for the investment. In hindsight, it was a lesson that I had to learn the hard way, and I am glad that I am now that much wiser.

Another lesson I learnt in a similar fashion was on WHAT records to buy when in a record store. Typically, whenever I enter a record store, I have absolutely no idea of what I want, let alone what I am going to walk out with. I take immense satisfaction in spending hours together digging through hundreds of records – many times arranged in no particular manner – and discovering a gem hidden among them. That moment of inspiration is priceless and I have gone through that process dozens of times. (I even built my complete Fleetwood Mac album set that way).

But one unwanted consequence of the same process is the discovery of used records by artists that you feel you ‘might like’ or are from artists you ‘have heard of’ or ‘want to explore’. In itself, this is a fairly innocuous occurrence. You usually find yourself with about 5-6 of these ‘type’ of records after all the digging through. These albums are usually very cheap – costing anywhere between $2 to $10 each. However, typically what happens – and I say this from experience – is that in addition to these, you also come across that one awesome album from a new pressing that can cost anywhere between $20 to $35. So what you are going to see is that you are getting 5-6 records for $30 instead of one record for $30. And so you purchase the used records for $30 while leaving out the one that you really wanted for the same amount. Essentially, you just spent the same amount of money on 5- 6 records – by bands that you may or may not be familiar with, and the music that you do not know if you will or will not like – as you would have on that one album that you really really wanted and already knew that you liked that music.

Long story short, it is not about the quantity. It really is about the quality. I will freely admit that there are dozens of records at my place that I will probably never listen to again. And if I chosen differently when it came to all those records, I would have easily bought a whole bunch of albums that I know for a fact I would have devoured completely. So yes, it is not about the numbers. It is about what speaks to you truly.

Yet another under rated aspect of collecting music is keeping it organized. When your collection passes a certain point (and you will never see this coming), stuff simply becomes hard to find. The text on the thickness of the sleeve can only be visible from so far out. Separating it into genres and by artist names alphabetically will go a long way in 1) reminding you of what you already have, 2) what to buy and to not buy in the future, and 3) finding the right music for the right occasion. I personally still need to find a wooden shelf of the right size to organize my entire collection.

So there you are. A few starter tips to be aware of while building your music collection. What I have said above very well applies to CDs. Of course, the Mp3 person does not have much to read into here.

And if you are really curious to see how my music collection looks, here you go:

My Books, CDs and Vinyl

My Books, CDs and Vinyl

More Vinyl

More Vinyl

 

The One Thing I Took for Granted

It was May of 2010 and I had just landed at the Bangalore International Airport early in the morning. I was coming back home after my first two semesters at Virginia Tech. By the time I reached home, it was about 8 AM and I was already hungry. My mom was clearly enthusiastic about cooking for me, but that morning she mentioned that I would have the Idli & Chutney that my grandmother had cooked an hour earlier. Apparently, my grandmother – who lived just a few blocks down the road – had woken up early just so she could cook breakfast for me. And she knew exactly what to cook. The Idli and Chutney that she used to make was the kind of stuff that could fix anything and everything. I think the word I am looking for is ‘panacea’.

So here I was, not having eaten ‘home food’ for over 10 months and my mom served me my grandmother’s best creation for breakfast. I sat in my chair and broke the first idli into a small piece, took a generous dipping of the chutney and put it in my mouth.

To this day, I cannot think of a more profound moment I have had when I ate something. Before I could chew the food and swallow it, I had broken down and was crying like a little baby. It was not just the feeling of experiencing something after a long time that made me cry. It was the realization that I was experiencing after a long time, something I had just taken for granted all my life that hit me like a cannon ball. And I didn’t have to tell my mom anything. She knew exactly why I was crying and that there was just no consoling me at that point. I cried for some 10-15 mins before I resumed eating my breakfast. Needless to say, I stuffed myself with what would have otherwise been a sizable breakfast for 3 people.

In hindsight, that realization seems a lot more obvious. But it does not make it any less significant. Food is one of the things that we are conditioned to take for granted (unless you are in a poor financial situation or related circumstances) while we were growing up. We always assumed that no matter what happens in this world – barring a natural or man made disaster – we would always have dinner served at the time we expect it to. So much so, that we even felt entitled to complain when it was delayed by a few minutes. Breakfast was always prepared 15-20 mins before we left for school or college. It just had to be. There was no other option. It would be an apocalyptic hell if it was delayed even for a few minutes. And all the food we were served had also better be something we liked to eat.

And so being served food that I preferred, at the right time, day after day for over 20 years was something I had gotten so used to that I had never comprehended the idea of anything different. Even when I lived in the hostels during college, the hostel mess always had the food ready at regular times. In any case, I went back home every 2 or 3 weeks during my undergraduate years. So it was only when I moved half way across the world here to the USA did I face the extremely strange situation of nobody serving me my preferred food 3 times a day at my new home.

In hindsight, the way I initially reacted to that is almost comical. I was in complete denial for the first couple of weeks and just did not eat any breakfast. I ate out for lunch and made some makeshift dinner (read cereal). It was at least a month before I came to terms with it and started cooking. Fortunately for me, I found that I took immense pleasure in the act of cooking. And after that there was no looking back. I learnt – mostly through experimentation and long phone calls with my mom – to cook most of the dishes that my mom made on a regular basis and took great pride in sending her photographs of my cooking. Needless to say, she was very impressed and very happy that I was eating home cooked food. And so after the first couple of months, I rarely ate outside and continued to get better at cooking. I even became popular among my Indian and American friends at VT for my cooking!

But when I had that first bite of Idli Chutney on my first return back home, I also knew that I would never ever match the taste that my mom or my grandmother made. Because you see, the dishes my mom or my grandmother ever made were not just made up of spices and vegetables. They were always made with unconditional love. And I suppose it really was THAT ingredient that I had taken for granted in all the food I had ever been served at home. It was also the ingredient that I had missed the most and could never put into my dishes. No wonder I broke down when I had that breakfast back then.

A few months after that, when I was back in the US and having just graduated, I learnt that my grandmother had unexpectedly passed away.  I will never see her again and that pains me to no end. I will also never have her Idli and Chutney once more, but I know that she is still out there helping me to recreate that taste I fear I will never get to experience again.

So yes, we take a lot of things for granted and don’t even know it. It only comes to the surface when it is absent and absent for a long time. So enjoy it while you still have a chance. But also, always pause to appreciate its existence while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

A Perfect Example Demonstrating the Inherent Bias in a Sports Fan

Yesterday I watched with great satisfaction Chelsea getting the better of Arsenal (well, duh!) early in the morning. That pretty much made my day and my weekend. The match was not without incident. Arsene Wenger openly pushed Mourinho in the latter’s technical area following a Gary Cahill tackle on Alexis Sanchez. I am not as interested in why Wenger pushed Mourinho or what exactly transpired there. What drew my attention earlier today is how fans from the two teams reacted to the news that Arsene Wenger wouldn’t be charged by the FA. For this, I looked at the SB Nation blogs for both the teams. (Yes, I follow the Arsenal and Man Utd SB Nation blogs in addition to Chelsea’s).

Wenger pushing Mourinho. But of course, Mourinho is at fault!

If you are not aware, SB Nation is a very well organized website with separate blogs for each sports team across different sports and geographies. The content is generally admirable and there are usually few posts every day on each blog, so this way you will always have something to read about your team. As a fan, this is invaluable as it gives a sense of being part of a fan community from all over the world. You should definitely check it out. But I digress.

So following the FA’s announcement today, We Ain’t Got No History, SB Nation’s Chelsea Blog ran a post that pretty much summed up my feelings. Just the hypocrisy of the FA when it comes to punishing Mourinho (or Pardew for that matter) over other managers is something that never seems to go away. I can possibly write an entire post on that but I won’t. For the most part, WAGNH’s post covers it – with a generous dose of sarcasm and an underlying frustration. Here is a quote from there:

“Point B” was of course on the pitch, where managers aren’t allowed, technically, but let’s not worry too much about technicalities.  It’s not like they matter anyway.

Here’s a thought exercise.  Say we reverse the roles, and it’s Jose Mourinho (or, say, Alan Pardew) who puts both hands on Wenger’s chest and shoves him (however meekly), just how many games do you think he would’ve gotten here?  Three?  Four?  Ten?  Perhaps with a public flogging or two?

Mind you, the Arsenal manager received a fine and a one-match ban for a “sarcastic pat on the back” of the fourth official in 2010.  It’s good to know that the FA considers a light tap on the back a far harsher offense than physically confronting the opposing manager in his own technical area.

The tone and the text is self explanatory. Chelsea fans have seen Mourinho being fined and/or banned for far less by the FA. And watching Wenger go without as much as a warning obviously bothers us. But, whatever. Chelsea still won and Arsene Wenger still hasn’t won the only contest against Mourinho that actually matters – the one on the pitch. I was ready to cease my interest in this incident and get on with my work. But then…..

In comes The Short Fuse! SB Nation’s Arsenal blog. Ah! The Arsenal fans must be extremely relieved that their manager didn’t get any further punishment, right? Perhaps they realized that a manager just going out of his technical area itself constitutes a violation of the game’s rules? Nevermind actually pushing the other manager in the latter’s technical area! Surely they know that a manager is not allowed on the pitch itself? Obviously only the medical team is allowed on the pitch in case of injury, right?

Well, Fuck all that! Here is what The Short Fuse had to say (Bold emphasis added by me):

Both managers have admitted, in their own words, that it was a heated match.  Mourinho stated, accurately, that he’s been guilty of doing “many wrong things in football”, with Wenger confirming in his post-match press conference that Mourinho was guilty yet again in the sport by preventing him from attending to his fallen player, in this case Alexis Sanchez, after being viciously assaulted by Gary Cahill.

After agreeing with Mourinho in that he was wrong, while concluding that Wenger – who’s only got the best interests and concern for his player – was acting in good faith and acted only after being unjustly provoked, the FA made the correct and honest decision today.

I don’t even know where to start. Read the text slowly paying attention to each and every word or phrase. Look at the choice of words used here: ‘fallen player’, ‘viciously assaulted’, ‘Wenger confirming’ that ‘Mourinho was guilty yet again’, ‘being unjustly provoked’?????? Really??

Just to clarify, here is Mourinho’s full quote (You should really read all the quotes here):

But to be fair, I do so many wrong things in football, sometimes you lose emotions but not this time. This time I was just in my technical area and it was not my problem. Story over.

Ah! Nothing makes a quote fit your own narrative more than just picking pieces of it that you like! In addition to the quote manipulation, the choice of words used in the post reeks of complete and unapologetic bias. Apparently Mourinho was at fault because Wenger just confirmed it. Yes, that is all you need. Wenger confirmed that Mourinho was at fault. Case closed. Let’s all go home, eh? And while we are on the way, let’s also give Mourinho a 3 match ban OK?

(On a side note, this is exactly the kind of quotes I expect to hear on Fox News. Complete and unapologetic bias).

Now I can definitely understand the agitated state of mind of the Arsenal fan following yet another loss to Chelsea (and Mourinho). I can also understand the frustration and helplessness of supporting a constantly under achieving team. I can almost feel the outrage in the mind of the guy who wrote that Arsenal post. And it is something I have felt myself many many times over in the past decade or so that I have supported Chelsea. (God knows what all I wanted to do to referee Tom Overbo after the Chelsea – Barcelona semi-final from 2009). So yes I understand the outrage. But to blatantly portray a situation in a favorable light to your fellow fans while painting the other team as evil by twisting quotes and facts (especially like the above) shows something far more fundamental in a sports fan’s psyche. It shows the basic human condition of the need to rationalize by choosing to believe biased points of view.

Sports gives rise to many such situations at an extraordinary frequency – irrespective of whom you support. Add to this all the passion and rivalries that are part of any sport and you have a recipe for extreme mood swings on a weekly basis at the very least! And when the human mind has to cope with these mood swings, it just turns to the ever present tools of rationalization, confirmation bias and subjective validation to make itself feel better. These tools manifest themselves in things such as online arguments, finding fault with the referee, conspiracy theories, declaring that the other team ‘just didn’t deserve to win’, finding a scapegoat, calling for someone’s head, manipulating and presenting quotes and facts that fit our narrative, collective commiseration, etc. The list really is pretty long.

So when we have situations where we are extremely frustrated – like your sports team losing to a hated rival – our minds automatically look for how we can rationalize and justify the loss. Because if we can indeed justify it, then we get a sense of satisfaction from ‘knowing’ that there was something out of our team’s control that cost the result. This does not make us feel happy but it definitely helps in dealing with the pain. (Trust me I have been there many times).

And this is what The Short Fuse has done. The writer has clearly succumbed to the mind’s need to rationalize. His mind is essentially telling him: “Fuck objectivity! I just need to feel good right now!” And THAT, is a celebration of the human condition. The resulting piece only shows to what extent he must have been feeling that outrage and frustration.

The interesting thing about this is that it is not restricted to just sports. The same feelings of outrage, frustration and ultimately rationalization/justification also prevail strongly in all things that we hold sacred. These include topics such as religion, gun control, politics etc. The more passionate you get about something and hold it sacred, the less objective you tend to get in that topic. It is just the way the mind works.

Isn’t it indeed a fascinating world we live in – where we can put sports, religion and gun control in the same box?

Settlers of Catan Strategies and Spending Money

               Settlers of Catan

Over the past year or so, I have become mightily obsessed with the board game Settlers of Catan. It involves collecting, managing and trading resources to build settlements and cities – with the final goal of being the first person to achieve a preset development stage. But that is just the gist of it. There are innumerable strategies that can be incorporated into the game. But there is one common trait to any strategy I choose to use. And that is to ensure that I ‘spend’ my resources as fast as possible in order to ‘build’ more settlements/roads/cities. This means that I do not ‘save’ my resources with the hope that I build a lot more at a later time. And because of this, when the robber is played, I usually do not have to forfeit my excess resources which I might have otherwise had. So as and when I get resources, I ‘spend’ them and acquire a road/settlement/city/D-Card. This typically increases my development points tally immediately. And as I keep doing that, I keep inching towards the target development points of 10 (varies). Of course, there is some other strategy always involved regarding whether you build ‘vertically’ or ‘horizontally’ or if you plan to connect all your settlements for the longest road points, etc. But in any case, ALL these strategies require me to ‘spend’ my resources to add to my development points. Saving has almost never helped my cause.

This brought me to observe and question my own spending habits. What do I do with my money? Do I tend to spend it fast or do I tend to save first? Do I live a comfortable life spending money within my means, or do I live a frugal lifestyle while I save money for some unknown future purpose? The answers to these questions was extremely simple and glaring to me.

I am an unequivocal and unapologetic spender. I spend money on every single thing that I decide is desirable/necessary and worth it. I spend, what some consider, an obscene amount of money on music related products and experiences. I am more than happy to spend a few hundred dollars extra in rent just so I can avoid having a roommate. I recently went on what turned out to be the most expensive vacation I had ever taken – and all by myself too. I upgraded my car within 2 years of buying one that was brand new then. I spent a small fortune on having my parents over and taking them on numerous vacations here in the US. And I continue to spend money to live a very comfortable lifestyle in which I do not deny myself any product or experience that I find desirable and can afford.

No. I am not a rich guy. Far from it. I still pay out loans, I send money back home every month. And when I do my accounting every month, all I see is that I just about break even. In a way, I just barely make ends meet. Only difference is that my ends are sufficiently far apart for me to live a very comfortable lifestyle. The point I am trying to make here is not that you can do more things and buy more stuff if you have more money. This is already understood and is nothing more than common sense. What I am more fascinated about is just the idea of NOT spending money, or as is more popularly known – saving money. Why do people save money? What incentive do they have to save money? Why do people give up everyday comforts of life just to save more money?

It is the first question that I am still trying to find the answer to. Most replies I get have something to do with the words ‘for the future’, or ‘in case of emergency’, or ‘you’ll never know when it might come in handy’, etc. Granted, there are people who save money for a specific reason, such as paying for school, children’s fund, etc. It is not these people that puzzle me. What does puzzle me are the kind that sacrifice everyday comforts just so they can ‘save more money’. These are the people who have no idea why they are saving the said money. They just go with the idea that all that saved money will come in handy ‘at some point in the future’. And they live a frugal lifestyle – not because they feel comfortable with it, but because they just want to save more money!

When I observed this contrast between the way I handle my money and people like these who are just all about not spending, I stopped for a second and wondered if I was doing something wrong here myself. Perhaps I should be saving some money after all? Maybe some emergency is just around the corner? I might even feel proud of myself for controlling my spending? I can prove to myself that I don’t need any materialistic pleasures? That is supposed to be a good thing, right? Maybe I will need to start saving right now so that later my future kids can do something for free? Maybe it will work as a down payment on a mortgage that I might take on a house sometime in the future? Maybe I should save money just for the sake of it?

Naa…..Fuck all that!

Those questions pretty quickly began to sound like nonsense to me. The idea of ‘What if?’ does not appeal to me. Neither does the idea of giving up something now so that something else can be done in the future. I am all about right now. Instant gratification? No. More like enjoying the present moment – because that is where we live – in the right now. Not in some distant future that you have imagined – no, decided – is going to take place. I am all about making the most of what the world has to offer to me – today and right now. I do not understand the idea of consciously making myself live less comfortably now for some perceived benefit in the distant future.

For example, I have spent about $5000 over the past 4 years going to concerts and all other music related purchases. $5000 is always going to be a lot of money. But, as I sit here typing this post, would I rather have that $5000 in my bank account now? Well the answer is an easy NO for me. But if I had chosen to save that $5000 for ‘some future use’, just imagine what I would have missed out on in the meantime? All the innumerable moments of inspiration and wonder that I experienced at every one of those concerts would be gone. Those were the moments that defined my life for 4 years. It is just horrible to think of what I would have missed out on if I had chosen not to spend all that money. And then when I ask myself what kind of a life I had been living the past 4 years, I would never have a satisfactory answer. “Oh I was just saving up so I can lead a better life in the future” is the most nonsensical answer I could give to that. So, NO, I would never ever want that $5000 in my bank today at the cost of having missed all the things that defined my life for 4 years.

Back in 6th grade, I read 3 verses of Someshwara Shathaka – a collection of 100 verses by a 14-15th century Kannada poet. The first two words of the 2nd verse is something that has resonated with me all my life:

Unadhirpa Dhanamirdhodenu?

Translation: What’s the point of having money that is not spent?

It is that simple. A few years ago, I was watching The Wire. During one of the many many memorable scenes, I heard Omar Little say something extremely similar – except he said it with infinitely more badassery. And anything Omar says is wisdom from the gods. Here, watch it for yourself.

Found the money quote? Alright, here let me break it down for you

Omar breaks into a cash rich poker game where Marlo Stanfield is playing and proceeds to rob him. 

Marlo Stanfield: That’s my money.
Omar: Man, money ain’t got no owners, only spenders

(This is followed by an even more epic quote but I am sure you can figure that out from the video. BTW, if you have not watched The Wire, you will).

And that is pretty much the mindset with which I live. Just like in Settlers of Catan, I earn resources. Once I earn these resources, I almost immediately spend them all in order to buy products and experiences that makes my life at THAT moment more comfortable and enjoyable. Money in my bank account is just a number. Money spent, on the other hand, immediately implies something that I had gained. I do not wait for the future before I choose to lead a better life. I choose to lead a better life right now. And I am extremely glad that my parents fully approve of this.

All I heard about money during my formative years (except from my parents) was how evil it was and that materialistic pleasures were the devil’s luring, and how one must find happiness in non-monetary things.  Right now, that advice looks like a complete piece of BS to me. All the experiences I have had with all the money I have spent have generated such intense feelings in me and have provided me inspiration at such a fundamental level on so many occasions, that it is hard to not feel in awe of it. For someone to say that I shouldn’t be doing that is just plain dumb.

Sure, all that money in your bank account does not follow you when you die and go to heaven. Which is exactly why you should spend all of it NOW while you LIVE and die with nothing in the bank.

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PS: If you think this applies to gambling, you are a worse douchebag than I thought you were.

Are You Replaceable?

It’s a simple question, but one that is perhaps the hardest to ask of yourself. 

“Am I Replaceable?”

Well, maybe not everyone, but most of us.

A few years ago, a friend of mine working for a company that provided background checking services decided to quit the place as she found a new job elsewhere. When she quit, nobody in her company expressed even the least bit of concern that someone who had a lot of experience and who was good at their job was leaving. The way they looked at it was that once she left, someone else would be in line to take over her position. Simply put, she was ‘replaceable’. 

That was, like I mentioned, a few years ago. But over the past couple of days, for reasons unknown to me, I have revisited the idea of being replaceable very deeply. So I am wondering:

Are We Replaceable?

All of us like to think of ourselves as unique, as one of a kind. There is something different in us that separates us from everybody else. It must be in our character. So on and so forth. Right? Right? 

Just take a look at where you are, what you have done in your life, what you have achieved in your life, who you are married to, who your friends are, what kind of life they are leading, what kind of a life you envision for the future, and what kind of a life the other people you know in your life have envisioned for their future? Fact is that every one of us have done something or the other with our lives. We have gone to school, perhaps gone to college, got a bachelor’s degree, perhaps even a Master’s degree, (and for an immigrant like me, made the trip to the USA for my Master’s), some of us are now married to someone, maybe we even have kids or are planning to in the near future, have a steady job that promises good career growth, helping out a lot of people at the job, working on new products, etc. etc. 

Which is all good – as long as people agree that all these things that they have done could have/would have been done by any one of a lot of other people as well had they been in the same position as they were. That is to say, we haven’t done anything that someone else (among a lot of people) in our position would not have done. Or in other words: “We are replaceable.” 

Anytime we live our lives by putting in the effort to do mostly what we really ‘have’ to do in order to be considered successful in the eyes of society and family, we are replaceable. This is because there is always someone else who, with similar upbringing and societal influences, will achieve the same things with the same opportunities that we have had. 

But what about our relationships, you might ask? Surely each person is loved for his unique character and personality, right? Else, relationships could not possibly work at all, correct? 

No, wrong. 

Both my parents have shown me unconditional love all my life and I am extremely grateful for it. If, for instance, my character and personality was instead more like one of the dozens of friends I know, my parents would still love me just the same. I could have been like any one of the many different people I know and my parents would have loved me just the same. What about a husband and wife? Surely there is a higher demand of a specific character requirement there, right? 

Again, wrong.

Think of your partner right now. Now, also think of some of the other people of the opposite sex of about the same age that you know fairly well and you respect. Now think about what would have happened if you had met one of these other people at the right time and under the right conditions. You would perhaps be sharing your life with this other person instead of your current partner. It just so happened that you ended up meeting your current partner under the right conditions and so you ended up with him/her. 

So essentially, anyone (of the many many people in this world) fulfilling your set of basic criteria, who happens to be at a particular place at a particular time and under the right set of circumstances will very likely end up as your partner. Whatever may be your partner’s quirks or character flaws, you will just learn to adjust, adapt and not complain about it in the long run. And the sense of ‘irreplaceability’ that you may feel towards a person after being with them for a long time comes not from a sense of individual uniqueness, but more from a sense of security, familiarity and an inherent fear of change. 

So yes, your partner is replaceable. And since that applies reciprocally as well, it means that you are replaceable  too. 

If this sounds very depressing, that is because it is. Nobody wants their sense of self worth to take a beating. It is one of the worst feelings in the world. The objective here is not to belittle who we are or what we have achieved. Instead, the crux of this aspect of the human condition is to be brave enough to ask ourselves a very tough question:

“What have I done in my life that anyone else in my position with similar upbringing and influences would not have done?”

Another way to frame it would be:

“What have I done in my life that is beyond my basic duties as an employee/student, husband, son, father, friend, etc?” 

Or:

“What have I created in this life that nobody else in my position as an employee/student, family man, friend, etc. would have?”

If you are struggling to find answers to these questions, then you – like most of the earth’s population – are replaceable. You could be leading the life of any one of a million other people just like you – and any one of the million other people just like you would have done pretty much the same things as you have in your life. They would offer the same things as you do. And so, you are replaceable by any one of them.

Questioning your own sense of self worth is easily one of the hardest things to do – which is why nobody does it. Instead, we all want to feel good about ourselves and think of ourselves as unique and remarkable in our own way. But the truth is that most of us are neither remarkable nor unique. 

Because most of us are just REPLACEABLE. 

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PS: At some point in time in the future, I intend to write about the one exception to this rule: ART. 

 

 

 

 

The Unattainable Goal

I recently watched the movie ‘Neighbors’ starring Seth Rogen and Zach Efron. It is a typical summer comedy with a fair amount of its laughs. There is one sequence right at the end when Zach Efron (having been thrown out of college) is plying his trade in front of a Levi’s store as some kind of a live model encouraging passersby to visit the store – all the time when he is shirtless and sporting his muscular body. Seth Rogen stops by and decides to join him just because he always wanted to be one of those guys. So he takes off his own shirt and the two of them are outside the store striking poses and showing off their looks. The contrast is unmistakable – Zach Efron with his well toned slim muscular body and Seth Rogen with his pot bellied, fat oozing body – right next to each other. Seth Rogen is also aware of this contrast. But to his surprise, he sees a fair amount of people going into the store after he gets in on the act. After he sees that, the following short conversation ensues:

Teddy Sanders (Zach) : You make the store more approachable.
Mac Radner (Seth): Like, I’m more of an attainable goal?
Teddy Sanders (Zach): Yeah, you’re like Relaxed Fit.

The punchline for the humor is supposed to be Zach’s ‘Relaxed fit’ line. But before that, what Seth Rogen says about him being more of an attainable goal made me pause and contemplate it for a bit. Not about that line’s humor content, but more about just the idea of an attainable goal. And following that, I got into the idea of the ‘Unattainable Goal’. 

We all have goals and desires. We have been programmed to believe that goals and dreams can be achieved with sufficient dedication, hard work and perseverance – no matter what the obstacles. That there is always a way through. We hear and read about all the success stories – further fueling the notion that all we need to do is just keep working hard and put ourselves in more favorable positions that might lead to better opportunities. 

But what we don’t ever hear are about those goals that are out of our reach. Not because we are too lazy to work hard or stay disciplined and dedicated – but because we are just not capable of it. The reasons could be many and varied – insufficient funds, no family support, being handicapped, living in an oppressive/tyrannical society, legal obligations, health concerns, etc. But in every single of these cases, there is a common element running through it all – the helplessness of a constraint. 

You see, constraints are different than obstacles. Obstacles can be overcome with sufficient effort, practice and perseverance. Constraints, on the other hand, are like the carrot and the stick – no matter how hard you try, that carrot is always a stick’s length away. It’s always going to be just out of reach. You can always do something about obstacles and tests, but there is nothing – NOTHING – you can do about a constraint. 

And once you identify your own constraints, you also identify all those goals and dreams it impacts. Those are your unattainable goals. And you will never ever fulfill them. No matter how much you call on your dear friend HOPE to fill your life and convince yourself that everything is possible and will work out just fine, they will always remain your unfulfilled, incomplete desires, dreams and wishes. Sounds depressing doesn’t it?

During one of my darkest times, I had written about how the redundancy of hope has us all in a bind. And I suppose that is what is celebrated as the human condition. As far as my own condition goes, I have always considered myself to have been in a state of being ‘almost happy’. And a few months ago, I realized what my own unattainable goals were. Needless to say, it was hard to accept and deal with it. I still don’t think I am fully on board with that – maybe in the near future. But I suppose it is still better to know beforehand than to keep trying at something and never succeeding. 

It can be a useful thing to know your own unattainable goals. It will be a hard pill to swallow once you figure out what they are. But after you come to terms with it, it will be that much easier to deal with the circumstances that remind you of what you don’t have. 

Just remember that every one of us has our own unattainable goals. Whether we are willing to admit them to ourselves, however, is a different thing. We can choose to understand our own limitations in life and try to make the most of what we do have, or we can continue to live a life of frustration, incompleteness and unfulfilled dreams. It’s like in that beautiful song:

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times

 

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PS: It was only after I finished writing this post did I realize that I actually ended up putting a positive spin on it. Just for the record, I had NO intention of putting any kind of positive spin on this post. I had fully intended it to be an extremely depressing piece of writing. But, in the end, this is how my thoughts flowed. And I am OK with it. 

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