Author Archives: Akshay N R
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.
I am exhausted. And I may even be writing this just to get that point across. I am also writing this on my 30th birthday – which is apparently a significant thing. Apparently, I am now old, can be officially called an ‘Uncle’, and as my parents and relatives subtly remind me – my prospects in the arranged marriage market have now taken a deep hit. I am also writing this 2 days after my birthday celebration which involved the highest rate of alcohol consumption and (rather short lived) general feelings of invincibility I have experienced in the last 5-6 years – a combination that culminated in my very own “I AM A GOLDEN GOD!” moment (OK maybe not that dramatic). I am also writing this after a full day and a half of (completely necessary) recovery. But more importantly, I am writing this at the end of a wild, wild summer.
I AM A GOLDEN GOD!!
The idea of seasons took its time for me to get used to. It was at least 2-3 years after my arrival in the US that I realized that I cannot be as active in the winter as I am in the summer. And more importantly, that it was OK not to be going out and traveling all the time in the winter. At the other end of that realization was my effort to be as active as possible during the months of April to October. It is a change in my lifestyle that I have come to accommodate over the past few years, and am now actually quite content with the new mental states that I find myself in at various times of the year.
For the past few years, ever since I started working, I have tried to reach a particular point in my mental state around late October/early November. It is a state of mind wherein I can honestly tell myself, “I have done everything I possibly could this summer, and now I am ready for the winter.” I have been largely successful these past few years in achieving that state of mind around October/November – just in time for the winter to set in.
This year, I reached that state of mind in the first week of August.
This summer has been one long continuum punctuated with concerts, music festivals, weekend travels, night-outs at bars, work, poker, games of Settlers of Catan, games of bags (a.k.a Cornhole), lots of records and CD shopping and of working out. It has had its moments – from very intense and stressful to very peaceful and relaxing. 4 trips to Chicago, 4 to Kansas City, twice to Wisconsin (including my 4th visit to House on The Rock is as many years), 3 music festivals, 3 night-outs at an establishment that I’d rather not specify (one of which culminated in my rather memorable 530 AM question “Is that the fuckin’ sun?“), 30+ bands seen live, a month long stay in a resort at Storm Lake (for work), God only knows how many gallons of alcohol consumed, late late nights (more like early mornings) at the neighborhood bar, God only knows how many new friends made, and all this while working on a high profile highway project in the state of Iowa.
This is probably the point I post a meme summing it all up:
Yes. It was really exhausting. And I would do it all over again.
In all seriousness, I reached a point of complete exhaustion the first week of August. I had been on a non-stop schedule of weekend travel/concerts/general fun for over 3 months. And after my trip to Milwaukee the first weekend of August, I just felt I was done – which was really understandable. But the fact that I did not have any concerts/travel scheduled for the next 3 weeks made the timing just spot on. So the break was most welcome, which I spent doing exactly nothing. (OK I will admit I continued my obsession with Japanese crime novels during that time.) And towards the end of August, I got my energy back and was traveling around all over again.
In the end, I look back at these past 6 months with a sense of satisfaction that I haven’t felt in a while. This satisfaction came with a new found appreciation for just being fortunate enough to have the time, resources and physical ability to do all the things I did. It also came with a sense of pride for realizing that my passion and curiosity for exploring what’s out there are not going away. It came with the true understanding that I am really only as old as I want to be. It also came with the realization that I have a group of friends that I can truly depend on, and a neighborhood that I can call my own. This is the closest I have come to feeling like I am home here in the US, and I truly feel fortunate that I have all this.
My 30th birthday celebration was probably the last ‘exhausting’ activity this year. My concert calendar is now empty till January, and I am going sober for the next 4-5 weeks. But perhaps, more importantly, my parents are going to be here a week from today for a month. What better way to do the cool down lap this year than just feasting on mom’s food? There may yet be one final weekend trip this year where I get to take my parents out.
But all in all, I can confidently say that yes, I am indeed ready for the winter.
As part of my continuing effort to lead a stress free lifestyle, I decided to try something new. I decided that I would not make any decisions for a full weekend*. This was largely inspired and based on the ideas of ‘Decision Fatigue‘ and ‘Ego Depletion‘. In a nutshell, those two ideas convey the fact that the human mind only has a limited pool of energy or resources that can be drawn to evaluate options and make decisions on a day to day basis. It also follows that after a long session of decision making, our ability to make correct (or any) decisions decreases significantly because of this mental fatigue. I guess in a way, this is a fairly elaborate academic way to explain the seemingly banal idea of ‘getting stressed out’. But you get the point. Making more decisions takes away more and more energy from your mind leaving you tired at the end of the day. Activities such as doing nothing or sleeping help replenish that source of energy for use at a later time.
Minimizing the number of decisions we make is a fairly popular approach to reduce stress levels. Steve Jobs and President Obama both implemented this idea in their everyday lives. And so do professional poker players. I just decided to take it one step further. I decided to make absolutely zero decisions for a full weekend. On Friday morning, my plans for the weekend consisted of me driving to Chicago that afternoon to see Mark Knopfler at the Chicago Theater, stay over at my friend’s place that night, meet another friend Saturday evening, and drive back home Sunday afternoon. Apart from this, I had no additional ‘plans’ to do anything at all. So it was then that I decided to make absolutely zero decisions from the time I left home till the time I got back. To be more specific, I decided to not think about the options in front of me when confronted with a decision. Just pick something and go with it if I really have to make a decision.
So that was how my No-Decision-Weekend started. I listened to BBC or NPR for the whole drive, switching between them only when I got really bored with one of them. Never bothered to explore the dozens of other music channels that Sirius XM had to offer. Reached Chicago and went to see the concert. Mark Knopfler was great, though I wish he had put in some effort – any effort – to actually sing the lyrics to Sultans of Swing instead of just speaking into the mic. But he more than made up for it by singing (and singing well) Your Latest Trick, Romeo & Juliet and my personal favorite On Every Street. So I left on a high, went to my friend’s place, had a beer, did small talk and went to bed at 130 AM. NDW Friday was a success.
NDW Saturday started with my friends asking me if I would be interested in an Apple festival that was taking place in Lincoln Square that morning. Clearly, there was a decision being asked of me. And I firmly declined to make it. I would go wherever it was they wanted to go. So, I found myself in Lincoln Square in a farmer’s market styled festival with lots of apples and apple related dishes – everything from apple pies, apple donuts, apple sauce, apple on stick, caramelized apples, and a bunch of other appley things that I had no idea about. Now I like apples myself but was never a fan of the sweet stuff that Americans tend to make out of it – like pies for instance. Never liked them. But all that changed because my friend declared that it was time to eat apple pie and drink coffee. Clearly I was not going to be objecting to that as that would require me to suggest an alternative and that involved making decisions. So I got an apple pie with some whipped cream and took a bite of it.
You know, there are some times when just the act of eating something makes you feel like all is well with mankind and that everything will be OK in the end. And that at that moment, all that mattered was that you were eating and enjoying that thing. I don’t particularly remember thinking of the war in Syria and believing that it was all going to be OK in the end. What I do remember, however, was how that piece of apple pie just melted in my mouth and made me fall in love with a dish that I had actively avoided for a long time. Of course, there was still the coffee to be had, so we went into a coffee shop/bakery and got a coffee. I also found something that looked interesting. It was called a ‘Savory Tart’. I had never seen anything like it before, so I bought it. It was essentially a piece of bread/bun with some small amount of cheese along with some caramelized onions and red peppers on top of it. I took a bite of this ‘Savory Tart’.
It tasted just like the mega-super-awesome-all-award-winning-epic-unparalleled-phenomenon ‘Bread Toast’ that I used to eat at all the Bakeries back home in Bangalore. 6 years on, this was the first time I had found something even remotely resembling the Bread Toast from back home. Apple festival was clearly a great success!
But we still had an hour to kill after the festival. So we walked into a record store nearby. That record store was clearly planted right next to the festival just so I did not have to make another decision on where to go next. It is known. I had never been to this record store previously. It was a decent sized store with neatly organized records along with CDs, cassettes, movie DVDs and video games. I started filing through the records with absolutely no idea of what I wanted (which is how I usually go about buying records anyway). An hour later, I had a problem on my hands. I had 4 albums and had to pick 3 to stay under a ‘reasonably exceeded budget’. I had to make a decision. So I just totaled up 2 different combinations and went with the one that cost me more. Ended up getting Illmatic by Nas, Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and Songs in A&E by Spiritualized. Problem solved! (Sorry Slowdive!) But it was only when I went to the counter to pay for them that I had perhaps the most interesting conversation that whole weekend.
There was a guy and a girl at the counter who were managing the transactions. The girl (who was around my age) called me over and I handed her my records. She started punching numbers into the computer.
Girl: It is going to be $80.
Me: OK. Here is my card.
Girl (running my card): Do you want a copy of your receipt?
Girl: Please sign this for me.
Me (signing): Here you go.
Girl: Do you want paper or plastic?
Me (still not making any decisions): Anything is fine.
Girl is now picking out a paper bag.
Me: I am not making any decisions today.
Girl (putting the records in the paper bag): Then who is going to make them for you?
Me (pointing at the paper bag): Well apparently, you just did!
We all laugh (including the guy waiting behind me in line).
Girl: If you come back later, I will help you make some more!
I have to admit. That last comment by the girl caught me completely off guard. It took me a few seconds to process what she had actually said and evaluate its potential implications. And it didn’t help that there were a bunch of people waiting in line behind me to make their payments. And by the time I realized I still hadn’t responded to it, she was already processing the next guy’s transaction. I guess I should have asked her her number or something. Or perhaps when she was getting out that day. But oh well, maybe next time.
We then went to Devon St, where the Indian settlement was, for lunch. I already knew where I was going (Udupi Palace) and what I was eating (Bisi Bele Bath). I also knew what I was going to order for my friends (who are American) – Lunch Thali. Once the lunch thalis showed up, I had half a mind to just sit back and watch my friends eat all the different dishes in no particular order or combination – hoping to see them eat HapLa dipped in Paaysa, or mixing the chapathi with all the other items there to make a big fat burrito. But I ended up explaining to them about all the items and what should be eaten with what and in what preferred order. They were able to appreciate it and enjoy it.
That evening, I met up with a friend who was clearly told from the beginning that I would not be making any decisions that night. She suggested we go to a particular bar and met up there. There she asked me if I wanted to go to a different bar, and I simply followed her. At the new bar, she asked me if I wanted to go to another bar and I said OK. I knew a few spots that I would have preferred myself in Chicago but I was clearly not making any decisions that day. So we ended up at the Liars Club on the edges of Lincoln Park. Before we went in, she described the place as a ‘divey night club’. I knew what a dive bar was (one of them is my home away from home away from home), and I knew what a night club was (though it had been over 2 years since I had been to one). But a ‘divey night club’? That sounded curious.
And when I went in there, it was exactly just that – a divey night club! I would not have put it any differently myself. Great place with people of all walks of life – from bikers to hot college girls to a couple where the guy was old enough to be the girl’s father (Hey! Fuck you if you are judging!). And all the people just seemed real. Just like a good dive bar! A place where you could have a good conversation, where the bartenders did shots with you, and here you could even go to the dance floor at the end of the bar to dance to 80’s music being played by the DJ! (Special shout out to that mega-awesome Hispanic guy in his late 40’s with a dress shirt, dress pant and formal boots dancing all night long, making up his own moves and not giving one single fuck to other’s opinions about his dancing. If anything, a bunch of girls went next to him to imitate his dance moves and some went one step ahead and began grinding with him! What a man!)
Great place overall! Thoroughly enjoyed it and stayed there till bar close. I ultimately returned home to my friend’s place at 330 in the morning and went straight to sleep. NDW Saturday was an unequivocal success!
Sunday started with me waking up at 7 AM with no hangover. (Smug face!) I had to leave at around noon, so my friend and I went to get some coffee and breakfast at a nearby cafe. Had a great conversation for the next couple of hours and then I left Chicago. Reached home in Des Moines at around 6 and was thoroughly satisfied with my No-Decision-Weekend trip.
I suppose I achieved my overall objective of not allowing any form of stress to develop over the weekend. This was my second attempt at such a ‘break’, with the first one being done in the company of His Holiness as he elevated his enlightened self to Dr. His Holiness. Stress free vacations are very rare and extremely underrated. Deciding to not make any decisions during a vacation can be very liberating. It does not mean that you are not in control. It means that you have no expectations and nothing at stake. And if you have nothing at stake, nothing can possibly go wrong. In a way, my weekend worked out like the first half of that Jim Carrey movie ‘Yes Man’. I pretty much just said Yes to everything my friends suggested, and it made me experience new and awesome things I otherwise would never have come across. So maybe there is some truth in that movie after all!
Screw all the decision making and the unfulfilled expectations that come with it! As The Dude would say,
* Well, technically I suppose that was a decision, but fuck you if you are going to get all technical about it.
I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien
I’m an Englishman in New York
That was Sting singing in 1987. This is not 1987, this is 2015. I am not Sting. I am not even an Englishman, and I may not even be living in New York, but I am one of the many many aliens – more specifically, I am a ‘legal alien’- that moved to and currently live in this country. Rest assured, I do not come from a different planet with the objective of taking away your natural resources and destroying mankind. On the other hand, I am just another human being (of the homo sapien variety) who came to this land from half way around the planet about 6 years ago. (It is not me who is saying I am an alien. It is the US Government who says so and who reminds me of it every time I fill in some paperwork.)
No Not this Alien.
My story is like the many many stories you have heard over the past decades and centuries. It is the story of people coming here in search of a quality higher education and in search of a better, more liberal lifestyle than their home country. In the six years I have been here, I have had a great number of memorable experiences and befriended a large number of wonderful people. Everyone of them have been nothing short of being super nice to me. I have lived a lifestyle I never knew I could ever afford. And notwithstanding the sacrifices I have had to make in choosing to remain here, I can confidently state that I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here in the United States, taking in everything this country has to offer.
And all along the way, I have vastly contributed to you by working on the design of a number of highways and bridges critical to your infrastructure. I have paid my fair share (about 35% of my income) on taxes and have been a law abiding person (or alien, if you so prefer). I have supported and continue to support a lot of global and local businesses (including the neighborhood dive bar) with all the money I spend.
I am repeatedly told that I have a lot of great opportunities for me to pursue in my career in this country. I am told there are even more opportunities here lying ahead that will help me explore the world and live the lifestyle I have always wanted. And my mind savors the possibility of that future when I can do that. But alas! That is where the fairy tale ends and the nightmare begins.
You see, as far as the Government here is concerned, I am still an alien. I maybe a ‘legal’ alien, but an alien nonetheless. And I am treated as one. I am willing to acknowledge that yes, I am coming from a different country and I need permission from the host to continue my stay. Unfortunately, the issuance of that permission involves the process of transforming from the status of an ‘Alien’ to that of an ‘Immigrant’ or ‘Permanent Resident’. And as you may be aware, this is a general nightmare for all the ‘aliens’.
What is it that you said? You are NOT aware of the nightmare? Oh, my bad! Of course you do not know! That is because nobody ever talks about the ‘legal’ immigrants in this country. I am sure you are fully up to date on the latest proposals to stem the flow of ‘illegal’ immigrants from the southern border with Mexico. Of course you are! All you have to do is switch on the news and you will find all you ever need to know about how the influx of illegal immigrants is creating a national security issue and how it is killing American jobs. You will learn the full gamut of opinions on this matter – from granting amnesty to the illegal immigrants to making them pay fines to deporting the bad ones to deporting all 11 million of them. Of course everyone wants to build a wall of some sort on the US-Mexico border. You know all about that for sure.
So yes, you know all there is to know about ‘illegal’ immigration and all the impacts to the US economy and security that are associated with it. But you have absolutely zero idea about the ‘legal’ immigrants and what we go through. We are the people who sought a legal way to come to this country. You have no idea of all the shit we had to go through to just get a visa to come here and study. And we worked hard every step of the way – always staying (with an abundance of fear) within the legal framework. We came here to not just consume the better life on offer, we also came here to contribute our services and skills. We have worked hard after we came here and we have made a good life out of the opportunities that came our way.
So in a way, we have achieved the American dream – until our visa runs out that is.
You see nobody is paying any attention to us people who seek to migrate to the United States legally and who have all our paperwork in place from the beginning. Did you know that, as a citizen of India, I need to wait for a total of up to 15 years in order for me to get my status changed from ‘Alien’ to ‘Permanent Resident’? Did you know that right now 2 out of every 3 applications for a highly skilled immigrant visa are being denied? Did you know that you can come to this country, get a Master’s or PhD degree in one of the top universities here, get a job requiring a very specific skill set, be a top performer at the job, and then just have to leave all of it within a year just because you happened to be among those who did not get their visa approved? Do you even know that the highly skilled work visas are granted on the basis of a lottery? Yes. Absolute chance. No merit. Do you know that during the Clinton years, the H1B visas (highly skilled workers) was hiked to 4 times what it is now? And did you know that the number of Green Cards issued annually stayed the same, creating a massive massive backlog (of 10 years) for people who have been waiting in the ‘legal’ line?
Of course you have no idea about all this. Why would you? Why would the media care about this? They don’t see any immediate detrimental impact to the society. It is much easier for them to stick with the ‘They took our jobs!’ narrative instead. Our work here is not measured on our contribution to the society and economy. It is measured in terms of number of American jobs lost. Never mind that the special STEM related skill sets that many of us ‘legal’ immigrants bring with us is something that this country sorely needs to sustain itself. Also never mind that that demand is impossible to be met from just domestic supply. None of this matters to the media who are only focused on exposing the ‘plight of hard working Americans whose jobs are being taken away by immigrants!’ How dare we provide the skills and services this country so badly lacks? And how dare we demand that we be given due recognition for our work by granting us permanent residency?
What about the politicians you ask? Well, what about them? Barely anyone has made any noise. This is a low risk low reward issue for all politicians. Can they do anything? Of course they can. They can do a number of things that can easily fix this mess that is the legal immigration system. But they just don’t. And because they haven’t done anything worth while for decades together, guess what? The system has been ripe for abuse!
Oh the irony.
The incentive to come to this country is so great for a lot of people that you inevitably have people who game the system, find its loopholes, and willfully exploit them for their own benefit. Oh and there are a whole bunch of them. Did you know that you can have one single person apply for a visa through up to 6 different companies? That is 6 different applications for the same person, in case you didn’t figure out. Way to increase your odds, right? Or what about those people who come en masse to the US to attend a makeshift/fake university for the sole purpose of becoming eligible for a work visa application? Did you know that these pseudo degree holders stand the same chance of getting approved for the visa as a legal immigrant who is a PhD holder from MIT? Did you know that each country has a fixed quota for allotment of green cards every year? On what is it based, you ask? Well, here is what it is NOT based on: Merit. I come from a country that currently has a back log of about 10 years. That is 10 years after you file the application, which usually happens 2-4 years after you start working, which in turn happens after I have finished my 2-5 year schooling. I will let you add up the numbers for shock value. So what is it based on? Again, the answer is not merit. Many many times, a person (or alien) who doesn’t necessarily have any significant skill set to contribute to the society stands to get his/her Green Card within a matter of months just because of their specific nationality. Is this fair? Is this helping this country? And guess whose low paying jobs these unskilled Green Card holders are taking away?
So yes, the politicians and the media have neglected the legal immigration system long enough to enable its long running abuse. You know the disappointing part? It is easy to fix. It is infinitely easier to fix than the ‘illegal immigration’ problem that everyone ‘wants’ to fix. But nobody is talking about it. Actually, I take that back. I did go through all the 2016 Presidential candidates’ stance on the issue of immigrants. Most of them didn’t have one – legal or illegal. Some had the usual rhetoric about building a wall and securing the borders. But there were two candidates who actually gave specifics on the issue of ‘legal’ immigration. Both said the same exact thing. They spoke about raising the minimum prevailing wage for the positions that call for immigrant workers. This is definitely a step in the right direction to address the abuse of the system. But it is no way sufficient. More needs to be done to bring awareness around this issue and to call for Congress to pass laws that will reform the system for those who wish to migrate to this country legally and contribute to its growth and culture.
Oh you ask who those two candidates are? One is Bernie Sanders and the other is Donald Trump. Yes, a Democratic Socialist and an arrogant Buffoon are the only two people who have even got some kind of an idea about what needs to be done to bring workers into this country legally. (Not sure what that says about this country’s politicians, but that is another story for another day).
So my dear America, yes this is the state I and thousands of others like me find ourselves in. We have a highly specialized skill set that this country badly needs. We all achieve and live the American dream until our visa runs out. But our contribution is always measured in terms of the number of American jobs lost. We are subject to being the victims of people who abuse the system we are trying to respect – a system that has been neglected for far too long. We go out of the way to ensure that we live here ‘legally’, yet no one is paying attention to our needs. All the while when the whole country is looking to find a ‘solution’ to those who come here ‘illegally’.
Yes, we know that is necessary as well. But please, do not pretend that we don’t exist. We do, and we are only trying to contribute. So please pay us some attention and in the process, help us help you grow?
A Legal Alien
Works of art and the method of their consumption had been two sides of the same coin all the way up to the 90’s, and perhaps even later. Music meant sitting in front of a music system, picking up a cassette/CD/Vinyl and inserting it into the device, hitting play, and observing the artwork and/or lyrics while the music played on the speakers. Movies meant dressing up and going to the theaters, or playing it on the VCR/DVD players. Books meant hardbound or paperback copies that came with the characteristic smell that made romantics of everyone who ever got the pages close to their faces and took a deep breath. The ability to exercise this sense of touch (and sometimes the sense of smell) in the consumption process appeared to validate and complete the experience. It generated a sense of fulfillment for the consumer that reinforced its legitimacy. As a result, the attachment between the consumer and the work of art was always identified with the mode of consumption.
This was the kind of world I grew up in. And needless to say, I had a strong opinion on these issues once the seemingly disruptive forces of technology came knocking on everyone’s doors. These opinions became even more pronounced after I started earning, as the money allowed me to purchase more music and books. (I currently boast of a sizable vinyl and CD collection as well as a half decent sized bookshelf stocked with books of all types.) Now though I did embrace the mp3 player simply because it made music portable, I had a hard time accepting the idea of an e-reader for a book.
The idea of reading a book on an electronic device was just completely unacceptable to me. I had always denounced the act of reading books on the computer. E-readers was never going to be any better. Convenience could not and should not trump quality of experience, I had propositioned. When someone asked me my opinion on the e-readers, I used to tell them something along the lines of the following:
If I pay for a book, I want to be able to own it. If I want to own it, I need to be able to see it and hold it. I also need to be able to put it on display in a shelf as a form of a statement of my taste in literature. In addition to this, I love just the act of holding a book in my hand and turning the pages and being able to physically connect with the work of art through the sense of touch. I will never get that fulfillment with an e-reader.
I held on to that point of view for the longest time – even, admittedly, after being fascinated with the Amazon Kindle’s features and clarity. Then last summer around Labor Day, I took a solo vacation to Colorado. I carried with me two books: Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and GGM’s Love in the Time of Cholera. However, two things came in the way of me reading those books. Firstly, I soon realized that I didn’t want to read something that was very demanding of my focus and attention – definitely not after a long day of hiking and/or driving. I just wanted something that would take me away for an hour or so without me having to put in too much of an effort to appreciate the niceties of the book. Secondly, it really was an inconvenience to carry both the books around everywhere I had to go. Even when I did want to read them, it was under circumstances when I did not have them on me. And that quickly became frustrating.
The frustration was not primarily borne out of my wrong choice of books to carry, or the inconvenience it caused me to carry them around wherever I went. I was frustrated simply because I had missed out on the act of reading. That was it. It was not that I ended up being too busy or tired to read. It was just that I did not have access to the right books and a more suitable mode of reading them.
That vacation made me strongly reconsider my position on the idea of an e-reader. I quickly realized that, when it came to reading books, my main objective should be to simply read more. As trivial as it may sound, it is the plain and simple truth. I realized that the mode of consumption does not change the actual content that was consumed, or equally significantly, its quality. Unlike the Mp3, whose quality is discernibly lower than what you would get from a CD or a vinyl, the words in a book remain the same regardless of what format you read it in. I even visited the sub-reddit for Amazon Kindle to see if people had brought forward any negative impacts on their reading habits after its purchase. On the contrary, what I found was unanimous positive feedback on the impact of the Amazon Kindle on the user’s reading habits. Every one of them specified that they had simply begun to read more frequently and longer – or in other words, they had simply begun to read more.
And that, tipped the scales in favor of me getting my own Kindle Paperwhite. I got it as my parents’ gift for me on my 29th birthday. And since then, there has been absolutely no looking back. I have finished more books in the few months since then than I had in the previous year or more. I have discovered new genres of fiction I very likely would have never made the effort to purchase a physical copy of. The prices are at least 30-40% cheaper than at a retail bookstore, if not practically free of cost. The convenience of being able to purchase a book during a moment of inspiration did wonders to my reading habit. And the device itself performs its function in an impeccable manner. It is very easy to hold and operate (most common being the act of navigating to the next page) when compared to holding a physical book in my hands at an awkward angle. The best feature of the Kindle may perhaps be its lack of too many. The focus is completely on the reading experience. Even the features it does have do not impose themselves on the reader, thereby minimizing any potential distractions.
So yes, I have done a full 180 degree turn with regards to my opinion on the idea of e-readers. Once you realize that it’s the act of consumption that matters, not the mode of consumption, you will be able to appreciate what the Kindle (or any other e-reader) can do to your reading habit. In fact, I was so excited with my Kindle that I got one for my parents and one for my 13 year old cousin when I went back home to India earlier this year. I will leave it to you to guess what the impact has been on their reading habits.
The simple fact is this: I bought a Kindle and my reading habit has grown exponentially. I am able to procure books for far lesser prices and I have explored new genres which I otherwise would never have. Equally importantly, I have not stopped reading or buying physical copies. I still do have a book shelf with dozens of books on them, and I will continue to buy hard copies in the future. But the way I read it no longer dictates if or what I read.
So if you are one of those who is of the opinion that physical copies are the only ‘authentic’ way to read a book, I would urge you to reconsider. If you are someone who has been considering getting an e-book reader but has not been sure, I strongly recommend you to take that next step and get it. You will be extremely satisfied with your decision. And if you are someone with a Kindle already, you will know what I have been talking about till now.
As far as recommendations go, I would personally recommend the Kindle Paperwhite ($119) over the Kindle Basic ($69). The primary (and maybe only) differentiator is the backlight in the Paperwhite version which makes the reading experience significantly better generally, while also allowing you to read in the dark. I also find that there is absolutely nothing of extra value in the Kindle Discovery ($199). The next generation of Kindle that will have any real value addition would be the one where they introduce color. But till then, the Kindle Paperwhite is more than a satisfying product. (I do not have any experience reading on the B&N Nook, so I offer no opinion on it.)
So please, go ahead and build your reading habit. This world needs a lot more book readers to prevent the mass lowering of IQ. Regardless of whether it is teenage vampire fiction or a William Gibson novel, or a book on the art of making craft, please go ahead and read. And if getting a Kindle is going to help it (well, duh!), then please go and get one. It will be a great investment for you and all your family members.
PS: As an FYI, I still do not find the act of reading books on the computer/laptop a satisfying experience. It still strains my eyes and, though the latest formats (.epub etc.) have done a good job of replicating the physical book look, my reading habit would have taken a negative hit if I had to go down this path.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.