Category Archives: America
Note: This is the second post on this topic. In the first post, I explained what the current H1B law provides for and what exactly the bill proposes to change. Please read that to get a full understanding of the situation.
The Protect and Grow American Jobs Act that was reintroduced last week by Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA) has received a large amount of attention from the Indian media due to its specific targeting of H1B visa changes. I have discussed in detail what the current law is and what the bill does previously. In this post, I will cover how the Indian media has incorrectly reported this bill.
To summarize the impacts of the bill, the following points should be sufficient:
- This bill applies only to H1B Dependent Employer (HDE) companies (those that have more than 15% of their workforce under H1B visas) and Willful Violator (WV) companies. It DOES NOT apply to ALL H1B visa seekers.
- The HDE and WV companies, unlike the rest of them, are required to recruit an American worker before applying a H1B visa for a foreign worker. They also cannot fire an American worker within 90 days before and 90 days after an H1B foreign worker is hired. They also cannot post the H1B worker at a different employer’s office. This is done to reduce visa abuse, to offer basic protection to American workers, and to ensure that only the best workers are hired under H1B.
- Under the current law, the additional requirements for HDE and WV companies, as shown in #2, can be easily bypassed in either of two ways. One is by hiring a foreign worker who has a Master’s degree in the area of the job. Second is by offering the foreign worker a minimum pay of $60,000 per annum. These two ‘exemptions’ allow the HDE and WV companies to bypass the additional requirements, thus making it very easy for them to abuse the visa system. (See the Disney H1B lawsuit for example).
- The new bill aims to change two things in the criteria that allows the HDE and WV companies to bypass the additional requirements (in #2). One, it aims to increase the minimum pay to $100,000 per annum. Second, it removes the Master’s degree exemption – meaning you cannot bypass the additional requirements just because the H1B worker the company plans to hire has a Master’s degree. This aims to close the loophole that allows visa abuses to take place.
So that was a summary of what is happening here. Now let us look at how the Indian media is reporting this news.
I will start with the most egregious falsification: The Hindu. The Hindu news article lists 6 separate items that it says the Bill aims to do. Only one of these is even partly correct. The rest are just outrageous falsifications. Let us look at them:
- The Bill prohibits companies from hiring H1-B employees if they employ more than 50 people and more than 50 per cent of their employees are H1-B and L-1 visa holders. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. There is no such language in the bill at all. Even the HDE company definition is incorrect going by this rule.
- The Bill encourages companies to recruit American workers. This provision would crack down on outsourcing companies that import large numbers of H-1B and L-1 workers for short training periods and then send these workers back to their home country to do the work of Americans, the Senators who introduced the Bill had said. This is a very generic statement offering no specific information on how the bill aims to do this. As a general intent of the bill, it is correct. But there is no language listing this explicitly.
- It explicitly prohibits replacement of American workers by H1-B or L-1 visa holders. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. The general intent to not replace American workers is indeed contained in the bill, as it is in the current law. But there is no ‘explicit’ language in the bill that talks about prohibiting replacement of American workers.
- The Bill seeks to give the Department of Labour enhanced authority to review, investigate and audit employer compliance as well as to penalise fraudulent or abusive conduct. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. Again, this is a very generic statement offering no information. More importantly, the bill text itself does not include any language in this regard.
- The Bill seeks to increase the minimum salary of H1-B visa holders to $1,00,000 per annum. INCORRECT AND MISLEADING. As discussed in the summary above, the minimum salary only applies to the H1B workers under the HDE companies seeking to bypass the additional requirements. This DOES NOT APPLY to all H1B visa holders, as this statement suggests.
- Currently, firms need not go through extensive paperwork if the potential H1-B employee has an equivalent of a Master’s degree or higher and he or she is paid at least $60,000 annually. The Bill aims to do away with the Master’s degree exemption (as “they are easily obtained by foreign workers”). PARTLY CORRECT. This is the only bullet point that has even a shred of correct information in it. As seen from the summary, what The Hindu lists as ‘extensive paperwork’ are essentially additional requirements that (only) the HDE and WV companies have to adhere to in order to ensure there is no visa abuse. Additionally, this statement mentions the Master’s degree exemption, but does not state what the exemption is for!
There is absolutely no excuse or justification for publishing such large amounts of wrong information on a leading national daily website (and presumably their newspaper as well). I am currently preparing an email to the Editor of The Hindu pointing out this outrageous misinformation. I do not expect a response, however.
The next biggest blunder I saw was from Zee News. Their article listed 3 separate items as part of the bill and its impacts. Here they are:
- To get H1B visa approved, you will have to fit in the salary bracket of $100,000 a year, up from $60,000 currently. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. This only applies for HDE companies looking to bypass additional requirements.
- One will need to have a Master’s degree, as recognized by the US. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT!! Removing the Master’s degree exemption language is foolishly misinterpreted as a Master’s degree ‘requirement’!
- It is estimated that any change on visa law will largely impact companies who have more than 50 employees based in the US. INCORRECT. The HDE companies are those that have 15% or more of their workforce under H1B visas. Companies even under 50 employees have the HDE categorization.
It should be noted that the Master’s degree ‘requirement’ mentioned above is actually being listed in many newspapers and websites. This is completely incorrect. There is no such requirement at all! Do not confuse the removal of the Master’s degree exemption to the ‘requirement’ of a Master’s degree!
The bill among other things increase the minimum salary of H-1B visa to $100,000 per annum and eliminate the Masters Degree exemption.
And as we have seen, this is only partly correct and also does not include any information on what the actual exemption is. Additionally, the Economic Times ran a slightly different spin on this statement. This is what it said:
The new bill would require workers on the H-1B visa pay a minimum of $100,000, up from $60,000 currently. The bill also removes the Master’s degree exemption to the cap on the number of visas available.
The second line is what is total garbage. There is no impact to the ‘cap on number of visas available’ as this report states. The Master’s degree exemption is completely unrelated to the H1B visa cap of 85,000 per year. Completely false information!
I do not have access to all the local newspapers which may be carrying different incorrect versions of this information. But I do suspect most of these versions were covered by the big newspapers (not a compliment!). I do not know exactly what was discussed in all the ‘panel discussions’ on news channels, so I cannot comment on that. However, I do not expect it to be any different than what I have seen on the websites. I was also appalled at people in high positions in various big name companies provide quotes on this matter without knowing anything about it in the first place.
What did concern me though was that this false information was said to have caused a fall in the share price of these big IT companies. This should not happen. The media loves to profit from sensationalizing new developments. But in the process, it should also be made aware of its responsibilities to report correct news. This is not something that should even be pointed out. It should form the basic bedrock of their whole operation. But the fact that a regular guy like me can dig up the correct information within an hour – all on the internet – while paid journalists do not bother to do so, and in fact report falsified information, is a definite cause for concern.
The Oxford Dictionary listed ‘post-truth’ to be the word of the year 2016. Its definition is: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. We always counted on the news media to show us what is actual truth and what is not – to separate the facts from the claims. But not any more. It now appears that as citizens of the world, we now need to verify what the media is reporting (or not reporting) prior to believing them. It is indeed a scary realization of today’s world – that the media is, in fact, part of the ‘post-truth world’.
I am sure that makes a sensational news story.
I woke up yesterday morning to a rather sensational news item on many Indian news websites. The headline had various versions of the following statement: “Bill targeting H1-B visas reintroduced in US Congress”. I was curious. For someone who considers himself quite well informed concerning legal immigration developments in the US, this was rather surprising. Even my dad called me up to tell me about it making front page news in the morning newspaper in Bangalore! So I decided to dig deeper.
I spent about half an hour on the internet going through the text of the actual bill, looking up meanings of certain unfamiliar terms, finding the specific paragraphs of the original law that this bill proposed to modify and fully understand what was happening. And then I looked up what the Indian main stream media was saying.
Wow! It was just unbelievable! What the Indian media was saying was absolutely nothing in line with what was actually proposed in the bill. They were not just twisting words to imply a different meaning. They were actually reporting completely false information! It is absolutely appalling! Additionally, there was not a single source that gave the correct information on the bill and what it actually stands for.
Which is why I have taken it upon myself to lay out the actual implications of the bill properly here. In the next post, I will summarize what the Indian media is saying and the incorrect information being dispensed will become obvious.
H1B Background and Purpose
The H1B visa is issued for high skilled foreign workers to enter the US and work on jobs for which skilled Americans are unavailable. The intent of the H1B visa is to complement the American workers with skilled foreign workers so that the American economy does not stagnate due to shortage of skilled labor. Typically, when an American company wants to hire a worker, they advertise the posting, receive applications, interview personnel and provide offers. If the worker being sought is a US citizen or a permanent resident, there is no issue and all is good. If the worker being sought is neither a US citizen nor a permanent resident, then the company can still hire the person under the H1B visa program. However, it has to follow some general rules and procedures to do so.
General Requirements/Procedures for H1B Visa
So what are these general rules? These rules are aimed at ensuring that the company is not misusing the visa program to employ low wage workers from outside the country when an equally skilled American worker is available or is being replaced. In summary, the following are what the company has to follow:
- Company must file a Labor Condition Application (LCA) which states the general information about the job such as period of employment, wages, location, and type of job. It should put up this notice at the work place so all workers of the company can see it and lodge complaints if there are any misrepresentation of facts on the LCA.
- At least the prevailing wage for that position in that industry is paid to the H1B worker.
- The H1B worker is not being hired during a union strike or similar situation.
If the company meets the above requirements/procedures, then the H1B will be granted to the foreign worker and he/she can work for the company. (This is of course subject to the lottery system). The key to note in the above 3 items is not what IS mentioned, but what IS NOT. The requirements do not specify that the job MUST be advertised in the US or that Americans must be given first preference during the hiring process.
Additional Requirements/Procedures for Certain Companies
All the above items that are NOT specified have made it fairly easy and simple for American companies to hire foreign workers. They are still required to pay the prevailing wage, so they cannot drastically underpay the foreign workers. However, over time, what has happened is that many companies have employed a large number of foreign workers without making any effort to hire American workers (and are termed ‘H1B Dependent Employer’). Specifically speaking, the H1B Dependent Employer (HDE) companies are those that have more than 15% of their work force under H1B visas. There are also many other companies who have actively abused the visa system’s requirements and have now been officially categorized as a ‘Willful Violator’ (WV).
Now, in order to discourage visa abuses by such companies, and to encourage companies to hire American workers (citizens and permanent residents) first (where available), the H1B visa program has additional requirements that the HDE and WV companies must adhere to prior to hiring a foreign worker under H1B. These are as follows:
- Advertise the job posting in the United States and make a ‘good faith’ effort to hire an American worker.
- If a qualified and eligible American worker is available, then the company cannot actively seek to hire a foreign worker in place of the American worker.
- The company cannot fire an American worker within 90 days before and 90 days after the LCA is made.
- The company cannot hire a foreign worker and post that worker in a location that belongs to a different employer.
Essentially, these requirements are targeted to ensure that there is no abuse of the visa program and that American workers are not discriminated against in favor of lower wage foreign workers. The potential visa abuses in the absence of these requirements are fairly obvious and as such, these requirements were considered necessary. Now keep in mind that these additional requirements are not applicable to all employers – only to those that fall under the HDE and WV categories.
The Exemption Loophole
But….there is always a but……there is a way out of these requirements for the HDE and WV companies. The HDE and WV companies can bypass these additional requirements if they hire a foreign worker who falls under the category of ‘Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant‘. So what does this ”Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant’ (EHN) mean? It’s actually very simple. A foreign worker is an EHN if:
- The worker has a Master’s degree in the field of the US job application for which the H1B is sought, OR
- The company is willing to offer a minimum of $60,000 annual salary to the foreign worker.
That’s it! If a foreign worker has a Master’s degree OR if the company is willing to pay minimum $60,000 per year, then the HDE and WV companies can completely bypass all the extra requirements aimed at containing visa abuse.
The Visa Abuse
To consider an example, a HDE company which has 50% of its workforce as H1B workers can hire another dozen of H1B workers, fire a dozen American workers who were working in the same company previously and replace them with the newly hired H1B workers – all by just paying them $60,000 per year or just because the H1B workers have a Master’s degree. (It is a whole other discussion on how easy it is to get a fake Master’s degree certificate for this purpose!) They could then also ship out the new H1B workers to locations of other employers and do their job for them. These other employers can then fire American workers at their company because now they have these potentially lower wage H1B workers doing the same job.
And if you think this kind of abuse does not happen, you are completely wrong. This is EXACTLY what happened when Cognizant and HCL – both HDE companies – sent their H1B workers to work at a Disney location where Disney had just laid off their American workers. What’s more? The American workers had to train the H1B workers as part of their severance package! Even as an Indian citizen and a holder of H1B visa, I would still say that is extremely unfair to the American workers. And how do you think the HDE companies got away with posting THEIR own H1B employees at some other company’s location? You guessed it right. The ‘Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant’ loophole! All they have to do is pay them $60,000 per year (which would have been significantly lower than what the American workers were making) and voila! You can displace any worker you like!
And the worst was still to come. The subsequent lawsuit that was filed by the fired employees was dismissed on the grounds that the hiring of H1B workers by Cognizant and HCL did not impact the firing of Disney workers because the Disney workers were not working for Cognizant or HCL. That is to say, one company can hire a H1B worker, post them to another company’s location, and the other company can fire an existing American worker – all within full legal means and with absolutely no consequence whatsoever!
Visa Abuse Impacts
What this does is two things. Firstly, it is inherently unfair to existing skilled American workers – citizens and permanent residents. But secondly, and more importantly, this abuse of work visas generates a lot of ill will among Americans and among the lawmakers regarding the utility of the H1B visa program overall. Over time, this ill will and negative perceptions will foster the bigger anti-immigrant rhetoric and discussion (as seen with the statements from incoming President Trump on H1B visas), thus leading to more protectionist measures being adopted that will benefit no one and in fact be detrimental to those who have been following the system the right way.
The New H1B Bill
Now coming to the proposed new bill, it offers the following changes to fix this loophole where HDE companies can bypass their additional requirements by hiring an H1B worker with a Master’s degree or by paying him a minimum salary of $60,000 pa:
- Raise the minimum salary for Exempt H1B worker to $100,000 and index it to inflation.
- Remove the Master’s degree exemption. This means that just because one has a Master’s degree does not make him qualified to be categorized under Exempt H1B worker.
So what this bill proposes to do is to close the loophole by raising the minimum salary for an EHN and by removing the Master’s exemption. Keep in mind that these HDE companies can still continue to hire H1B workers as long as they meet the other requirements. And it is also important to note that this provision does NOT apply to any company that is not on the HDE or WV list. Those companies can continue to hire H1B workers without any additional requirements. It also does not mean that EVERY H1B worker will have to be paid minimum salary of $100,000. (Every H1B worker will, however, be paid the prevailing wage at a minimum – which varies based on location, profession, level, etc). The HDE company will have to pay minimum $100,000 pa salary if they want to bypass the additional requirements listed above. And the bill definitely does not mean that the Master’s degree is mandatory to get an H1B visa!
So after studying this bill in full detail, I have to say that even though I am an Indian citizen who is on an H1B visa in the US, I support this bill. It does cut down a major loophole in the visa program that lets HDE companies to abuse the system. And it pains me to acknowledge that, yes, most of these HDE companies are Indian companies – HCL, Cognizant, Infosys, TCS, Wipro, etc. and get close to 80% of the H1B visas every year.
With regard to the bill itself, I would remind all that this is just introduced. The same bill was introduced last year and was scrapped. So I don’t think it will actually pass this time either, but I hope it does. Because if it passes, then there is going to be a bigger chance of these H1B visas going to those who play by the rules and truly deserve it. And in the long run, visa abuse will reduce thus fostering a positive opinion of this important program among the American people and lawmakers.
In the next post, I will discuss all the incorrect information that the Indian media has been reporting.
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 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.
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.
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.