Among my initial impressions of American culture and lifestyle, what really caught my eye were the isolationist tendencies that this country has consciously and sub-consciously adopted over the course of the past 2 centuries. (The validity of the ‘why’ is not relevant to this discussion). And more specifically, how these isolationist policies had manifested themselves in the day to day workings of the society. And of all the different aspects of American culture that exhibit this isolationist propensity, perhaps the most visible, glaring and sometimes obvious one is sports.
American sports (apart from Olympic events) are mostly just that – sports played in America. American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice hockey are sports where the biggest sporting events include teams from within North America playing each other to be crowned ‘World Champions’. (Sure there are instances of international participation – notably for Basketball, and also for Baseball in Latin America and Japan). But for an outsider looking in – like an immigrant such as myself – the universal, unquestioned acceptance of such a largely self-contained system among its people seems to display a certain sense of ignorance, apathy and maybe even some arrogance over other sports that are a lot more popular in the rest of the world. And THIS can and does work towards discouraging people unfamiliar with the sports to explore it.
Additionally, for an immigrant coming in to this country well beyond his/her formative years, it can seem to be a rather daunting, and sometimes even pointless, task to explore the sports. My own initial thoughts went along these lines: “I have no association with these sports. I never grew up with them. I have no reason to be interested in them now. So I will still continue to just watch cricket, soccer and tennis.” And this was (and in many cases, still is) echoed among most of my fellow Indian friends. It would have been that much easier to simply keep my status quo and not make an effort into exploring the product of a seemingly isolationist thinking.
But it is only when one looks beyond this apparent barrier of sports apathy and isolationism does one discover a whole new universe of sporting culture this country has to offer. And so I decided to take the plunge to see what’s out there – at least as far as American Football is concerned.
Doing my Master’s in a university with a big football tradition such as Virginia Tech inevitably exposed me to a lot of buzz around the game and the team. An American classmate of mine volunteered to feed my curiosity by watching the VT vs Nebraska (2009) game with me and explaining all the rules and objectives. VT won that game – a rather low scoring encounter with a memorable finish. And I got hooked on to the sport. I watched most of the VT games and even managed to follow some of the other ACC/BCS games that season. I even recollect going to my friend’s super bowl party that winter.
My initial efforts to watch and understand the game may have been borne out of a desire to socialize and make new friends. But over time, the sport itself grew on me – to the extent that I started to watch even non-VT games whenever they were on. So in my third semester (and second football season), I decided to watch a few games at Lane Stadium – home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. That was also the first time I learnt about the tradition of tailgating.
I just couldn’t believe it! I had never seen anything like it before. People drank alcohol for hours before the game, during the game, and for hours after the game! Lane Stadium ended up being a spot where 67,000 drunk college kids cheered on a bunch of other college kids playing football! Wow! It was just incredible! And I definitely wanted more! So I ended up going to 3-4 more games at the Lane Stadium, the most memorable of which being the 28-21 win over Georgia Tech on a Thursday night.
In the end, maybe it was being around a lot of people who all cheered for the same team, maybe it was that I was looking to socialize and make new friends, or maybe it is because I am a big sports guy by nature and American football was a sport that I came to like, or maybe it was a combination of all of them. But whatever may have been the contributing factor, by the time I graduated in December 2010, I was no longer looking at American football as an outsider. I was a fan of the sport and I had a team to root for.
Over the last 6 years since my graduation, I have become even more knowledgeable about the game – not so much its history, as about the tactics, strategy and the team itself. I have a big group of American friends who are passionate about the game, and I feed off their passion and get increasingly more involved in the game over the season. Though the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences in the Midwest have little to do with VT and the ACC, I nevertheless have watched most of the VT games and a bunch of other ACC and other conference games. I have always watched the BCS bowls/playoffs even though there was no team in there to cheer for personally.
I have come to realize that to grow an interest in any new sport, one need 3 things: a general liking to the sport itself, a team to root for, and friends to watch the games with (preferably rooting for the same team). I have been fortunate to have all of them and so I now find myself cursing, clapping, shouting, jumping around and being my usual animated self whenever I am watching a VT game. I follow fan blogs that discuss each game, the team, recruiting and all associated gossip and rumors – all clear indications that I have something personally invested in the outcome of the games every weekend!
And speaking of having something personally invested in a team, I have also realized that I have a direct affiliation to the Virginia Tech football team. I went to school there and so there is a very valid reason to root for them. Which made me then question my affiliation to all the soccer teams that I have passionately supported for well over a decade now – Chelsea and Juventus. I suppose we don’t need a reason to choose a sports team to root for, but technically speaking, I have a more valid affiliation to VT football than to Chelsea or Juventus! (I know! This is sacrilege!) But I choose not to break my head about that.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is the absence of anything NFL in my encounters with American football. I do watch the games at the bar or at my friends’ place when they are on. I will even appreciate a close/good game regardless of who is playing. But the absence of having a team to root for has pretty much held me back from following it as closely as I do for college football. Many of my friends are either fans of the Broncos or the Packers, so whenever I am watching a game with them, I end up cheering with them. I do have some affinity towards the Broncos, so if I were to really pick a team, I would probably go with them. But until I truly commit to an NFL team and start rooting for it, I probably wouldn’t feel the same way about it as I do with college football.
At the end of the day, I find that I have spent many weekends watching American football with my friends to great satisfaction – bonding, cheering and even having opinions of my own about how the teams should have played. These experiences have proved to be a very fruitful, having served as an easy avenue to assimilate into the American lifestyle and to have a larger sense of belonging in a new society and culture that is half way around the world from where I grew up. I have benefited greatly from this experience and I definitely intend to keep exploring this further.
It has been about 4 months since I gave up drinking alcohol. 10 years of regular (and mostly moderate) alcohol consumption came to a rather indifferent end earlier this year. Whenever I mention this to people, the first thing I am usually asked is,”Did you get a DUI?!?” And when I respond that no, I have not been arrested for drunk driving, they are typically unsure why else I would have stopped drinking alcohol.
Fact is I simply lost interest. Yes, there was some motivation behind it in terms of bad cholesterol/LDL numbers. But in the end, that was nothing more than the equivalent of an excuse to bring in the change. And when I actually made the decision, it didn’t even seem like I was doing something monumental. I felt the same as when I decided to get off social media a month earlier. It was more of a “Whatever….it doesn’t seem to matter anyway” feeling than an actual ‘decision’. And it has continued to feel that way till today.
I perhaps should not make the statement that I have ‘given up alcohol’. That would imply that I would never drink alcohol ever again. And I know that is something that would be untrue. If I am meeting a good friend after a long time, or if there is a very special occasion, or even if my dad offers me some good Scotch, I am not going to take some kind of a moral or health-based high ground and refuse to join them.
Going on some kind of a dry streak doesn’t mean or do much to me either. It is not that I am afraid I will simply lapse back into my drinking habits if I were to get a beer tonight. I just don’t feel the temptation in the first place. In fact, I still go to my neighborhood bar 2-3 times a week to say hi to my friends; I just don’t drink any alcohol there. So even though I will always appreciate the taste of a good Scotch whisky, I don’t think I would have more than a drink or two in a year. Therefore, I think I would rather make the statement that ‘I have lost interest in alcohol’ instead of ‘I have given up alcohol’.
Losing interest in alcohol provided me with a number of side benefits including having a lot more time on my hands (perhaps because of which I am able to write this post tonight!). And so I started looking for something to do with all the time on my hands. It so happened that around about the same time, a friend of mine suggested that I explore the idea of juicing as a regular activity. I had only known about juicing in passing. So I did some research and found that it was a rather convenient and potentially tasty way to get a whole bunch of nutrients into my body, and, within a few days, had bought the most popular juicer on Amazon.
Then, to find good juice recipes, I went on to the (extremely creatively named) website JuiceRecipes.com. There I found a large database of not just recipes, but also information and general tips on the act of juicing, including some useful warnings on what not to do. I liked the structure of their website and have stuck with it since then for all my juicing needs.
And then I started juicing.
Wow. Turns out, juicing is fun! I thoroughly enjoy the act of juicing. And I am not just talking about the part where I drink it. I enjoy the whole experience – deciding on a recipe, preparing the fruit/vegetables, running them through the juicer, and even cleaning the entire apparatus! It is only after I have cleaned it all do I drink the juice. I feel so good when I juice that it has become some kind of a Zen activity; all my focus and energy is on the juicing and I am totally living in the moment! So I never juice in a hurry and always do it as a separate activity that needs its own time. Overall, it takes me about half an hour to decide on a recipe, prepare the ingredients, run it through the juicer, clean the juicer and the waste, and drink the juice. And I look forward to it every day after work.
I am not even going to make an effort to list the health benefits here, because it is the most obvious aspect of juicing. But what I will definitely point out is that juicing has given me something else to drink in place of alcohol. Yes, I would have probably continued to not drink alcohol in any case. But having a big glass of juice to keep sipping on while playing poker or throwing bags with friends who are drinking beer always makes the job so much easier.
So for anyone out there who is trying to quit/reduce drinking, wants to develop some kind of a healthy dietary habit, is looking for a convenient way to get great nutrition in their body or just wants to do something constructive in their free time, really just STOP DRINKING AND START JUICING!
PS: I use the Breville JE98XL Juice Fountain Plus 850-Watt for all my juicing. I am thoroughly satisfied with the product and have high praise for the general design and the ease with which it can be cleaned.
It has finally happened. I have written a Part 3 to something! This in itself is cause for celebration. But I digress. Here is a quick summary of the bands I saw at 8035 Music Festival and Hinterland Music Festival in 2015. Two good festivals, but I have to admit I liked Hinterland that much more. So here goes:
17. Wilco at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: I remember buying a CD of Wilco’s ‘A Ghost is Born’ from the local record store about 4 years ago. To this day, I believe that is his best album. I love ‘Summerteeth’ and I strongly believe that ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ is overrated. He is as good as a songwriter and singer as he is a bad lyricist. But my ratings of his albums and his ability to write good lyrics had absolutely no bearing when I saw him play a few blocks from my apartment at the 8035 music festival. For some reason, I had believed that 8035 would be a perfect place for him to play, and that pretty much just happened. I unfortunately do not remember much from the show as I was sufficiently inebriated and all I pretty much remember is just swaying to his music, singing along and having great fun. I do remember he played most of his greatest hits, including some 3-4 songs from ‘A Ghost is Born’. That’s it. I truly do not remember much else. I am glad I got to see him play some of my favorite songs live, but I also do wish I could remember much from it.
18. Weezer at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: I have absolutely no idea how long ago it was that I had heard to Weezer last. The ‘blue album’ was good and I had heard a few of their other songs. Good show to sing along to. I remember it was night at 9 or so and my friends and I were just so damn tired that, admittedly, we just stayed at the back of the crowd and had a low key experience of the show. They did play Islands in the Sun and that was good enough for me.
19. Lettuce at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: Hands down the best band that played at the 2015 8035! There is something about jam bands and watching them live. It is like driving through the forests of Colorado in Fall. That is just exactly how you must experience it. And Lettuce put on a great show. It didn’t matter if you were familiar with the band or not, you were dancing! They even got a touring singer come out and sing vocals for a few really groovy funk numbers. Definitely the highlight of the entire music festival.
Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: A new music festival that was scheduled to take place at the Waterworks park, less than a mile from my apartment had some last minute changes in the venue due to flooding concerns. With the venue moved at the last moment from Des Moines to St. Charles, a small town half an hour down I-35, I was a little bit apprehensive about the venue but it turned out to be just great. And the whole music festival went so well, that the organizers are going to stick with St. Charles for this year’s edition. Works for me!
20. Future Islands at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: This is a band that I don’t think I will get tired of seeing them live. This was my second time, having seen them at Wooly’s in 2014, and it was an even better show. That lead singer can dance. Clearly a ladies’ man (he was even wearing golden color boots), he was sweating and “ready to take all the women to the moon” by the end of the show (overheard at the show). This band really does redefine bass grooves and showmanship. Grace Potter, true to her name, puts on a show with enormous amounts of grace. This man, on the other hand, puts on a show with sheer raw energy and intensity. Regardless of whether you are familiar with this band or not, you WILL be dancing at their show. I also do sincerely hope they starts playing Like the Moon at their shows. I could make an argument that it is their best hidden gem, and it is so good that it doesn’t deserve to be hidden anymore. On a personal note, this band brings back strong memories from my solo vacation to Colorado. I was, after all playing ‘Singles’ for a good part of the 1600 mile drive. FYI, I could start dancing right now listening to them on my earphones in the coffee shop.
21. St. Paul and the Broken Bones at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Second time as well, having seen them at Wooly’s in 2014. Mr. Paul, the lead singer, really is the Ottis Redding of this generation. And the band’s basslines will always remind me that I love playing the bass guitar. They played an hour long set at the festival in the sweltering 95 degree heat, AND they did so wearing full fledged suits! I think they did a bit of sweating. But this band is one of my favorite bands and they introduced me to a genre I didn’t know existed and I love. ‘Half a City’ is a great debut album and I am looking forward to an even better sophomore. And then some more shows!
22. Madisen Ward and Mama Bear at Hinterland Music Festival AND Vaudewille Mews: That is right. I saw this band twice last year, and it is right at the top of bands I discovered in 2015. This is a mother and son duo who play folk music. I have not been naturally attracted to folk music like I have been to so many other genres. I had always felt that most bands focus more on the sound of folk music than on the melody of the songs. Which is why I fell in love with MW first time I heard Silent Movies. But Silent Movies was just one of the 12 beautiful and melodious songs on their debut album ‘Skeleton Crew’. In fact, it was also an anomaly, as it seemed to be a rather happy song. Almost every other song on their album is the kind of song you listen to just before you throw yourself off a cliff. I could go one step ahead and say that listening to them when you are feeling gloomy can make you feel that the ‘jumping off a cliff’ part is actually a reasonable idea. Perhaps, at this point, I should point out that the most depressing song I heard in 2015 was from ‘Skeleton Crew’ and it is Dead Daffodils. Yes, I know just the name of the song can make you feel like giving up on life altogether. The song will make sure you do just that.
As far as the shows went, I have to admire the old woman’s passion to travel so much and have all that energy at that age to play so many shows in a year. At the Vaudewille Mews show, she played a haunting, stripped down version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams and Ben E King’s Stand By Me. The VM show was a very intimate one and I was right in front of the band. And this really is a band that one should watch in an intimate venue. Madisen Ward has a beautiful voice that seems to be singing in the most appropriate genre and melody. Down in Mississippi will always be a highlight at their shows just because of the power of MW’s voice and the spell that it casts on the audience, captivating them completely. And that effect is amplified best at an intimate venue.
I am hoping to catch them again in Kansas City this July. It won’t be at an intimate venue, but it will do just the same. And I will definitely be on the lookout for their sophomore album.
23. TV on the Radio at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Take David Bowie, mix it with copious amounts of Nine Inch Nails, then add some Prince for good measure, and you might just begin to envision how TVOTR sounds like. ‘Seeds’ is the best summer album I have heard since ‘Evil Friends’ by Portugal. The Man. And with a back catalog that has songs such as Wolf Like Me, Staring at the Sun, this band’s live shows do not disappoint. There is a lot of DJ stuff in their sounds, and a lot of live instruments as well. I don’t mind either way simply because they have created a very refreshing new sound that you can sing along (Happy Idiot), dance to (Lazerray) and even get charged up ready to smash some windows (Wolf Like Me). I also do hope they start playing Right Now – easily the best dance track of their entire catalog – on their shows. ‘Seeds’ is an album I will always associate with the summer of 2015 and everything it felt like. I still do need to properly explore their back catalog and will be on the lookout for their next album/tour. Strongly recommend this band!
24. Brandi Carlile at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Country music has always been at the wrong end of my taste spectrum. I have always felt that mainstream country has its focus more on song structure, sound and lyrics and not much on creating new melody (kinda like blues too). Brandi Carlile is one of the exceptions and I fully enjoy her music. Her show was high energy with the entire crowd singing along to most of the songs. But I have to admit, the highlight of the show when she got the members of the Old Crow Medicine Show join her on stage to play a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California! She poured her heart and soul into singing the high pitch portions of the song, and it was truly impressive and powerful! That’s when it hit me that here is a bluegrass band and a country singer covering a rock n’ roll classic by Led Zeppelin. I suppose all is well with mankind after all. I am looking to see her in concert this month (June) again in Des Moines, and I know I won’t be disappointed.
Honorable mention to Old Crow Medicine Show and a not so honorable mention to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Edward Sharpe was drunk and high and could barely get himself to sing to the most basic standards. Shame on him for such lack of professionalism).
It appears that I am now able to actually conjure up Part 2 of a post, as opposed to simply intending to do so. So here is the Part 2 (of 4) for reviewing the concerts i went to in 2015 – the best year on record for me. Part 1 can be found here.
9. Tame Impala at Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO: One of the few bands that I have become a superfan of in the past 2-3 years is Tame Impala. Kevin Parker is well on his way to become a truly versatile musician and producer. ‘Lonerism’ was one of the best albums I heard in 2014, and his latest album ‘Currents’ is even better. However, the concert was scheduled prior to the release of his latest album (a practice I am not particularly a big fan of). So even though he did play Let it Happen, Eventually, Cause I’m a Man (he did NOT play The Less I Know the Better), I was not familiar with them. But he did play most of ‘Lonerism’, so that pretty much got me my money’s worth. In fact, it made up for the last time I saw them Live and missed half their show.
I have to admit this was the most ‘psychedelic’ show I had ever been to. The visuals, of which there were plenty, pretty much consisted of hypnotic wheels, laser beams generating abstract images, and pretty much just dope shit. I suppose that is the kind of stuff one sees when they are on shrooms, but I wouldn’t know (gotta fix that!). Quite fitting the band’s music for sure. I am definitely looking forward to seeing them live again when they play their new album – especially now that I know it inside out!
10. Dave Matthews Band at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, IA: I got on the DMB wagon way way late. In fact I got on it so late, that I found out many people who were on it had gotten off it! I eventually learnt that his group of fans were the kind who get overly obsessed with the man – to the point where they know every single song he has made, and also believe that he can do no wrong. This would typically generate a hype among his super-fans that could appear manufactured for the non-super-fans. And I can totally see why this could be putting off for folks who do not want to be identified with the super-fans. As far as my own discovery goes, I had no clue about the overly obsessive mindset of his fans. I just happened to buy ‘Crash’ at a sale and proceeded to listen to it, and I loved it. Then I listened to ‘Busted Stuff’ and then to ‘Under the Table and Dreaming’ and loved all of it. Then I found out he was playing in Des Moines and went to the show with a friend. I still listen to him and will continue to do so and go to more concerts if I can.
Now about the show: I will go ahead and say it – DMB is in the top 3 shows I have ever seen in terms of pure musicianship. The other two being Steven Wilson and King Crimson. In fact, it is probably safe to say that Dave Matthews was the worst musician on stage. And the fact that that is a compliment should indicate how good his bandmates are. (I could easily say that about Steven Wilson as well). The band first played an acoustic set with Dave looking remarkably sober (to which my friend reacted “I didn’t pay all this money to see Dave play sober!”) and then played an electric set (with the ‘sober problem’ quite evidently fixed during the break). This being my first DMB show, it was truly fantastic to see how the whole crowd seemed to know the words to each and every song that he played. (Super fans indeed!) And with such a huge back catalog, the band plays a different set every night, preserving the element of surprise (or disappointment) for everyone.
With that being the state, I was pretty satisfied with the final setlist. He played most of my favorites #41, What would You Say?, Ants Marching, Space Between and, of course, Grey Street. Sure I would have loved for him to play Satellite and Jimi Thing, but hey there is always another time. Overall it was a very energizing experience being around such passionate fans jumping and singing and screaming all the time – something I will remember more than just fondly. And I truly mean it when I say I had no business being there in the first place – unstoned. Gotta definitely fix that next time! And trust me, there WILL BE a next time!
11. Esperaza Spalding at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: I like to play bass guitar. Esperaza Spalding plays bass guitar, and she is pretty good at it. That was pretty much the reason I went there. And she did not disappoint. Now imagine how well you can recite the English alphabet. Pretty easy right? Perhaps something that you can just play around and still get it right and not even put in any effort at all. It’s like you just own the whole act of reciting the alphabet. Playing bass is Esperaza Spalding’s equivalent of reciting the English alphabet. It was not just her skill I was impressed with. It was the fact that she made it look so god damn easy that blew me away. I just cannot emphasize that enough. She not only made the bass guitar sing, she also made it dance, headbang, clap, jump up and down and just make the crowd completely forget that it was just nothing more than a god damn bass guitar. Lots of funk, some reggae, some rock, and lots of jazz and a whole lot of fun! I may not explore her music separately but will definitely be going to see her live again if I get a chance!
12. Shania Twain at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, IA: My one true guilty pleasure, and honestly I don’t think I would even think twice about calling it guilty. ‘Come on Over’ was one of the first albums I fell in love with back in high school. My friend and I were totally looking forward to this for months together. Unfortunately, the timing of certain events led to me just go there by myself. I have to admit I couldn’t enjoy the show as much as I had anticipated I would due to the circumstances, but I did see her play all the songs I wanted her to – Man! I feel like a woman!, Don’t be Stupid, Rock this Country, From this Moment on, You’re still the one, I’m gonna getcha good!, and of course, That Don’t Impress me Much! This was probably her last tour, so I am glad I got to see her. The venue was packed to capacity and I have to admit I was surprised to find a lot of dudes – much more than what I had expected!
13. The Aristocrats at The Gaslamp, Des Moines, IA: The Aristocrats is a band that consists of Marco Minneman, Guthrie Govan (both of whom play for Steven Wilson’s band) and Bryan Beller. I had missed out on watching Marco and Guthrie play with Steven as they were doing their own thing with The Aristocrats. But no worries. The band decided to play at The Gaslamp! (First reaction when I heard about it: “Wait, what? The fuckin’ Gaslamp? If I tried hard enough, I could get a gig for myself there!”) It is an almost dive bar with a makeshift stage and a room with a capacity of about 100 max, and it is just about 2-3 blocks from my apartment. And The Aristocrats played here. It was surprising to the point of being plain ridiculous. But it did happen, and 3 musicians put up a great show. There was a crowd of about 80 or so and the band played great music – mostly instrumental. It was not a jam band by any means, but a band which use their instruments to play precise songs. Smuggler’s Corridor was my personal favorite (apparently inspired by the Breaking Bad scene where Walt kicks a barrel full of money across the desert). All in all, I was majorly satisfied to see some of my favorite musicians play at the fuckin’ Gaslamp, of all places! Still don’t believe it!
14. Beach House at The Slowdown, Omaha, NE: One of the other bands (after Tame Impala) that I have become a super fan of is Beach House. This band simply makes some of the most depressing, melodious, poetic and ultimately beautiful songs I have heard in my life. I saw them at The Slowdown, which has become my personal favorite venue in all the Midwest – a very intimate place where everyone gets to see and hear the band optimally. Put it the other way round, I would say that Beach House is the kind of band you want to see at The Slowdown.
I cannot praise the band’s Teen Dream album enough. It is one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard and it is an album that I can never simply play in the background. It will always demand my full attention and require an emotional investment every time I choose to listen to it. It is THAT intense. The concert was exactly like that – intense. Nobody in the crowd said a fucking word throughout the show. (It probably helped that the band had the venue paste notes asking the crowd to maintain silence throughout the show). And neither did I. I was more than happy to just shut the fuck up and let the music do the talking. And speak to me it did. Songs from ‘Depression Cherry’, ‘Teen Dream’ and ‘Bloom’ concocted a feeling of great satisfaction and contentment – something that told me that I had everything I ever needed and that it was now time to give something back. And if I am to be very specific and honest, I will say that this was the show where I felt the strongest connection to the band and to the music – something that even led to the minor epiphany during Lazuli. Sure they didn’t play that one song (10 Mile Stereo) that I had believed would push my experience into the plane of higher consciousness. But in the end, they didn’t need to. Wild, Myth, Silver Soul, Walk in the Park, Other People, and Lazuli were sufficient to take me to that other place and gently guide me back to earth.
I will always cherish this particular show. It reminded me of the Sigur Ros show that I saw in 2013 – a spiritual experience that had to be set aside from all the other shows I have been to. I almost decided to make the drive to Lawrence, KS to see them live again the following evening. And next time I just might.
15. Kraftwerk at Arvest Bank Theater, Kansas City, MO: Honest to God, I didn’t even know the band members were still even alive until a couple of years ago. I have had an exceptionally memorable bond with this band. ‘The Man Machine’ was, after all, one of the first albums I fell in love with when I was just a 6 year old kid. I would play the cassette, close my eyes and imagine that I was on a spaceship with the band playing the songs to an ecstatic crowd. And late last summer, there I was, watching the band play their best hits. It may not have been a spaceship, but fuck you, to me it was!
First of all, it was a 3-D show. That is correct. A 3-Dimensional show where the band members stood behind their keyboards in some kind of a glowing space suit (I told you it was a god damn space ship!) and mind-fuck visuals were beamed on the screen behind them in 3D. The crowd were given 3D glasses for the show and the visuals were definitely very creative and detailed. It included a virtual race circuit for Autobahn, a Fritz Lang inspired Metropolis for, well, Metropolis, a bullet train for Trans Europe Express and so on. There was even a sequence during Spacelab where a spaceship landed in a spot that was clearly made to look like downtown Kansas City. And so yes, again, fuck you! I was in a god damn spaceship! (Don’t you dare mess with my childhood dream!)
Seriously, the stage just consisted of the 4 dudes and their keyboards. Nothing else, no one else. And I have to admit it was hard to figure out how much of their music was pre-programmed and how much of it was played live. But I don’t think that really mattered much. The setlist was pretty much their Greatest Hits, with an added bonus of them playing the full The Man Machine album! This included an encore where they played The Robots with 4 actual robots in place of the band members. Pretty cool really. Computer Love, Radioactivity, Autobahn, Trans Europe Express, all their best songs were played that night.
I truly wished it was not a seated show and instead consisted of sufficient amounts of alcohol consumption and general bad dancing and overall merry making in a standing show. But hey, I don’t think I can complain at all. The first thing I did after the show was call up my dad and tell him how exciting it was to see the band that he had introduced me to when I was a kid. I do wish I could have taken him to the show, I know it would have meant a lot to him, but alas, there was this small issue of him being half way around the world from me.
I will always be glad that I got to see the band play live in my, and more importantly, their lifetime.
16. Mark Knopfler at Chicago Theater, Chicago, IL: Mark Knopfler has a very special place in my life. Dire Straits was the first band that I truly fell in love with – well before I discovered Pink Floyd. I knew nothing about the band, but a cassette I rented in my high school became the start of a great bond that I would develop with the music and lyrics of Dire Straits. It was the band that began the ‘mellowing down’ process of my later adolescence, heralding a transition from all things metal to something more nuanced and melodious. I had the opportunity to see him open for Bob Dylan a few years ago in Omaha. But I knew that show did not do justice to his vast catalog and to his own deserved place as the main act. But this one did – for the most part. I am not going to dwell much on the fact that I have never seen any artist be so bored and uninterested in singing some of their own songs as I did with Knopfler singing Sultans of Swing and So Far Away. And the reason I am not going to dwell on it is because of what else he played, and played supremely well.
With every artist, I have a few songs that I truly love. These are not necessarily B-sides but maybe even like C or D sides, so to speak. They are almost never performed live and you will rarely hear them on the radio. I tend to strongly associate these songs with certain emotions, a specific state of mind, a place, a vision from the past, a vision for the then future, a certain someone, a feeling of what could have been perhaps, some regret, an awareness of the desire for a different set of outcomes in the past, and some inevitable, leftover hope for the future. And it has typically been an unfulfilled hope to see these songs played live. So when Mark Knopfler played two of those songs – On Every Street and Your Latest Trick – it actually took me a few seconds to figure out what song he was actually playing. I hadn’t heard them in years in an apparent attempt to isolate and box all the feelings, emotions and memories that came with it. And I had been largely successful at it too. Because when those memories came flooding back to me at the Chicago Theater, they were all firmly in hindsight; and I was looking back with a sense of sympathy and mature acknowledgment, instead of nostalgia and regret. It was a powerful experience being there and watching him play those two songs that captured so much of my later adolescence so deeply.
In the end, it almost became that everything else was a bonus. But that would be not only unfair, but also plain incorrect. Romeo & Juliet, Paraguay, Privateering, and Theme from Local Hero all stood out on their own. And at the end, I felt that I had finally laid to rest a longing from my adolescent days to see Mark Knopfler live and to see him play those songs that could have very well been the soundtrack to those times.
When I wrote about the concerts I had been to in 2014, I firmly believed that 2014 was as good as it could have gotten, and that 2015 could never really surpass that. I even wrote so in that post. Well, here I am, writing about my 2015 concerts (admittedly late) and being so happy to have been wrong. Thanks largely to my wild wild summer and me putting in those extra efforts to go to see the bands, 2015 ended up exceeding my wildest expectations. I saw about 40 to 50 bands (probably more) in total including some 30 or so of whom I actually wanted to see. So I am going to have to write 4 parts (primarily covering only the bands I actually wanted to see) to this thing to keep the length of the posts manageable. I may even have to skip a few bands but hey that is something I can live with. So here goes:
1. Foxygen at Blue Moose Tap House, Iowa City, IA: This was the first concert I went to in 2015 and it was by far the worst show I have ever attended. I really like the band. Their (then) new album ‘And Star Power’ had some particularly good psychedelic songs (See Cosmic Vibrations). And I was looking forward to see them live. But then this was what happened: The lead singer was very likely coked out of his mind and he was jumping around all around the stage like a madman. That would have been an energetic show in a good way except for the part wherein he rarely, if ever, held the mic near his mouth – essentially making him completely inaudible for most of the show. And when someone in the crowd shouted “I can’t hear you. Sing to the mic!” his response was “This is fuckin’ rock n’ roll man!” – as if the genre he was singing permitted him to be unprofessional on stage. And then just when I was getting into the groove of the show, it was over. It lasted just about 40 minutes and the band left the stage abruptly.
So here are my two middle fingers to your lack of professionalism Mr. Sam France. Rock n’ Roll deserves better than you.
2. Mini Mansions at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: This is one of the bands I began to explore after I found out they were playing at Wooly’s. Simple songs (See Death is a Girl, Vertigo) with good hooks and better than average production value. Their entire album is worth listening to on repeat and the songs sounded every bit as good live. It was a 3 piece band that remained rather quiet in their performance – which was surprising considering the lead vocalist is the bassist from Queens of the Stone Age. I did thoroughly enjoy the basslines through all their songs; in fact I will go ahead and say that that is their strength. Having said that, I did always feel that their self-titled album was not just a good album, but more of a missed opportunity to be a great album. So here is to hoping they make an even better one next time!
3. Royal Blood at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: This band was actually the main act with Mini Mansions the opening act that night. Can I just say that they blew my mind? Yes I could, and that would be an understatement. To start with, this is just a 2 piece band. Drummer and vocalist who also plays this bass guitar that also somehow, by magic, plays the lead (or is it the other way round?). No kidding. A weird set of pedals and other mysterious objects let him play the lead and bass at the same time. The riffs that come out of this monstrosity of an instrument reminded me of Led Zeppelin when they were at their best. Not just in the sound, but more in the attitude and rock-out-ability (whatever that means). Add to this, meaningful melody and lyrics that make you want to just get up and punch someone (I got a gun for my mouth and a bullet with your name on it; But a trigger full of heartbeat pulling from an empty pocket) – and all this makes the perfect potion you want to drink just before you go to war. The duo put on a high energy show too and everyone at Wooly’s left feeling energized and clearly ready to punch someone in the face!
4. Grace Potter at Brenton Skating Plaza, Des Moines, IA: I am just going to go ahead and say it: Grace Potter is the best performer I have seen in my entire life. She will probably continue to be a mid-size venue filling and late afternoon festival spot filling artist for the rest of her career. But that will never tell the full story of the quality of the music, the spirit of her lyrics, and most of all, the energy of her shows. This was the 4th time I saw her Live, and was probably the best experience of them all. Couple sufficient alcohol consumption with friends who know all the songs (like I do) and who want to dance the entire night through (like I do) and the stage was set for an extremely memorable night. She debuted her solo stuff but the highlight was always going to be the stuff she did with The Nocturnals. Songs like ‘Loneliest Soul’, ‘Keepsake’, and ‘Turntable’ are the kind that get even the most uptight person in the groove and dancing. I haven’t checked out her solo album, but I am hoping it is as good as ‘The Lion, The Beast, The Beat’. (Good news is that I will be seeing her again this year).
Special shout out to Jessica Lea Mayfield who opened for Grace Potter. She has the second most depressing song I discovered in 2015 (I Can’t Lie to You, Love).
5. Umphrey’s McGee at Brenton Skating Plaza, Des Moines: A friend of mine (who has lost count of number of times he has seen UM Live) had been continuously suggesting me to watch them Live. One fine day last year I did. I almost didn’t, but then I found 2 willing friends and I did. They played for over 3 hours with about a 20 min break in between. What I realized was that it didn’t matter if you have never heard them play before or haven’t heard their name. Their music was just phenomenal, and the light show was on par with the music. They even covered David Bowie’s Let’s Dance (well before he passed away). It is a band that you have to go see as a matter of general principle if they are playing nearby. They are playing again this summer and I intend to see them.
6. Steven Wilson at Barrymore Theater, Madison, WI: Perhaps the concert I had been looking forward to ever since I had seen him 2 years before that. He had just released Hand.Cannot.Erase and I totally wanted to see him play live. He did not have Marco (drums) or Guthrie (lead guitar) but he had equally capable replacements. He played the full HCE album interspersed with some of his older solo stuff. The highlight of the show, however, was Routine from HCE. He introduced the song as the most depressing he has ever created, and I tend to agree with that. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the visceral, heart breaking animated video that played on the screen for the entire song. I promise you most of the people in the crowd were either ready to burst out in tears or were already shedding them by the time the song ended. I myself was no exception and I rate that to be one of the most intense experiences of my life. The video wasn’t released online until the end of the year and was only played at his concerts, which preserved the exclusivity of that experience that much longer.*
In addition to HCE, he did play Lazarus, a song that I love and one that he hadn’t played when I saw him play with Porcupine Tree in 2010. So that closed the circle on that in some way and I was truly happy. He also played Sleep Together, another PT song, but I cannot remember if he played that in 2010. I do wish he would play more from The Raven.
The thing that did pleasantly surprise me was that he engaged the crowd frequently and on things he had something to say about. He spoke about making depressing music (“…as opposed to what else?”), accepting grief and loss, his new signature guitar, and even singled out a group of people he had spotted at the previous show (“You realize it is the same shit every night right?”). I had taken a friend of mine who had never heard about him to the show and he was mightily impressed. It was best encapsulated with his first comment as soon as we got out of the venue: ‘I need a drink’!
* I did see SW again this year in Chicago and it was only then that I saw the Routine video for the second time even though I could have seen it online by then. In any case, the 2016 show led to a series of events I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams.
7. Lake Street Dive at Simon Estes Amphitheater, Des Moines, IA: I think this is a jazz band. There is jazz for sure, but there is some indie rock in there as well. So call it what you want. But there is no denying that voice will capture your attention anytime you hear it, and more so when you hear it Live. The band played a stripped down version of their instruments because of some unknown reason, but that barely seemed to matter at all. The band could have been non existent and then just the vocals would have been just fine. They played most of the songs from their ‘Bad Self Portraits’ album except for the one that I believe is their best song (Just Ask). But hey they covered Hall n Oats’ Rich Girl, so that was awesome! Also, did I mention about that voice?
And I am seeing them again this summer!
8. Electric Six at Vaudewille Mews, Des Moines, IA: I dare anyone to listen to Electric Six play High Voltage live and not be jumping around for the entire duration of the song. Come to think of it, pretty much all their songs are like that – which meant I was jumping around for pretty much the entire duration of their show. (Actually listening to that song right now as I write this at a coffee shop, I just want to start jumping around right here!) I had listened to their songs only in passing and found them to be rather upbeat intended to make you get the fuck out of your couch and do something – preferably along the lines of smashing something within immediate reach. When played live, however, that smashing-things-around-you turned out to just be the baseline. The only way the crowd could express their energy was by jumping around or headbanging. I chose the former. And I honestly do not remember a single concert where I was jumping through the whole damn show. I am fairly certain I do not possess that energy and which is why I was surprised to find myself do just that at that show. Now if only I could go to an Electric Six show every morning, I would probably end up that much more productive at work.
Well at least they are playing again this year, so once a year is good enough I suppose!
Next part will include my experience at the 8035 and Hinterland music festival: Wilco, Weezer, Lettuce, TV on the Radio, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Brandi Carlisle, and many more.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.