Category Archives: Des Moines

5 Months in New York City: The People

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come.

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Growing up in India, the term ‘big city’ largely implied the size of a city in terms of its geographic scale. And the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ meant that there were people from all over the country who called the said city their home. But here in America, the term ‘big city’ implies the size of the city in terms of its population, and the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ means that one can find people from all over the world who call the city their home. There was always going to be a culture shock going from a small city like Des Moines in the Midwest to living in New York City. I was largely prepared for it and definitely looking forward to embrace it for the duration of my stay.

To the people who live there and for those who have never spent significant time there, it is perhaps nothing more than an axiom – that was acknowledged a long time ago and something that holds no significance now – that New York City is the biggest city in America and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But for those who have never spent any significant time in a city that size and that diverse and who go to live there for the first time, it is no longer just an axiom. No, for those who go to live there for the first time, the size of the city and the diversity of the population is easily the most glaring feature the city has to offer. It is the first thing that will strike you and it will continue to be a constant reminder of what the city is and what it stands for.

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So yes, that was the first thing I noticed myself – the sheer number of people and the diversity of those people. (To be fair, I had been to NYC (and have spent many days in Chicago) previously for a few days as a tourist, but these kind of observations and realizations do not come when in the mindset of a tourist. You just have to live there for a while). People from all over the world – from places I knew well to places I didn’t even know existed. I met people who had lived in the city since a few weeks and I met people whose families had lived the city for several generations, and everything in between.

The term ‘melting pot of different cultures’ cannot and should not be used in an off-handed manner. But NYC clearly makes the case for being one. There are always going to be isolated pockets of people from different cultures who tend to spend time among themselves. But from what I saw, there was a lot of clear racial and cultural inter-mingling that has taken place over several generations and continues to this day. Interracial couples and mixed race folk tell only part of the story. The true inter-mingling happens in the transfer of ideas from people of one culture to another. And this is on full display in the city. It is largely on the subtle level, but if you are looking for it, you will definitely find it.

The diversity is so much on display there that (apart from the one exception of the concert crowd) there was never in a single situation where I found that white people were in the majority! In the subway, in Times Square, in Harlem, in lower Manhattan, in Queens or Brooklyn, in movie theaters, in restaurants and literally anywhere else, I always found that non-white people made up at least half the crowd. I made that observation and state it here as absolutely nothing more than a fact that reflects the true extent of diversity the city has to offer.

For all the talk about New Yorkers being rude and arrogant and living life in a hurry, I found that most of my encounters and observations pointed to the contrary. I spent a good amount of my time (at work) with strangers who had no reason to help me in any form. I am not talking about people in the office working in a cube. I am talking about blue collar workers of different age groups who were born and raised in the 5 boroughs. I spent a lot of time with them – weeks together on a daily basis – and got to know them rather well. Most of them tried to help me out on various tasks when they had absolutely no incentive to do so. And everybody were polite.

In fact, the more time I spent with them blue collar workers, the more I noticed a rather raw side to their general nature – an honesty and straightforwardness that I hadn’t found among anyone working in a cube. There was no beating around the bush, no needless diplomacy – just the honest and polite truth. My conversations and interactions with those blue collar workers – especially while hanging out at their office food truck  for breakfast or lunch – were definitely some of the memorable highlights from my NYC stay.

It was not just that those blue collar workers spoke a certain way. What also made a difference to me was that my own skin color did not seem to make any difference to anyone in NYC when they interacted with me. Here in the Midwest, I have typically found people being more guarded when talking to me as compared to other white people. Even though they mostly do it with the right intention, it still remains an undeniable fact and something that prevents me from developing new and deeper connections. But in NYC, the people I interacted with had no holding back. Sample this: Within two days of meeting and working with this one blue collar worker, we were already talking about what kind of college degree his daughter should pursue! Even strangers I met on the bus or the subway didn’t appear to incorporate my skin color or accent into how they interacted with me. And that was an extremely refreshing experience that I had sorely missed in Iowa.

The explanation for this is actually pretty obvious. The more that white folks get to see and interact with people from other countries/cultures/races, the more familiar they get with them, resulting in not putting up their guards when they meet someone not of their color/race/country in the future. This phenomenon is obviously not just restricted to white people. This very much applies to any dominant group of people interacting with people who have less representation in the same geographical area.

And so, with 5 months of NYC under my belt, I can see why immigrants like to flock to a city like NYC. The reasons and explanations may sound obvious and almost banal to those who already live there or in similar cities. But for someone like me living in a much smaller place where many times I am the only diversity around me, it was a massive paradigm shift in terms of the dynamics of social interaction and what assimilation means and stands for.

And it was only when I came back to Des Moines last week that I appreciated the contrast for what it truly was. America is called a ‘land of immigrants’ and that is true. But I realized that what that means in NYC is vastly different than what it means in a place like Des Moines. In New York City, that phrase stands for immigrants from all over the world whose families have lived in the city from several generations ago to those who probably just landed there that week. In a place like Des Moines, that phrase implies that several generations or centuries ago, a number of East European people came there as immigrants looking for a better life and have since lived there.

I will conclude by saying that one cannot and should not compare and contrast a city like Des Moines to a place like New York City. There is only one New York City but there are many places like Des Moines. But it is equally important to accept and acknowledge the vast difference in the number and diversity of people in those cities – and their far reaching impact on the society.

 

 

2015 Concerts in Review: Part 1

When I wrote about the concerts I had been to in 2014, I firmly believed that 2014 was as good as it could have gotten, and that 2015 could never really surpass that. I even wrote so in that post. Well, here I am, writing about my 2015 concerts (admittedly late) and being so happy to have been wrong. Thanks largely to my wild wild summer and me putting in those extra efforts to go to see the bands, 2015 ended up exceeding my wildest expectations. I saw about 40 to 50 bands (probably more) in total including some 30 or so of whom I actually wanted to see. So I am going to have to write 4 parts (primarily covering only the bands I actually wanted to see) to this thing to keep the length of the posts manageable. I may even have to skip a few bands but hey that is something I can live with. So here goes:

1. Foxygen at Blue Moose Tap House, Iowa City, IA: This was the first concert I went to in 2015 and it was by far the worst show I have ever attended. I really like the band. Their (then) new album ‘And Star Power’ had some particularly good psychedelic songs (See Cosmic Vibrations). And I was looking forward to see them live. But then this was what happened: The lead singer was very likely coked out of his mind and he was jumping around all around the stage like a madman. That would have been an energetic show in a good way except for the part wherein he rarely, if ever, held the mic near his mouth – essentially making him completely inaudible for most of the show. And when someone in the crowd shouted “I can’t hear you. Sing to the mic!” his response was “This is fuckin’ rock n’ roll man!” – as if the genre he was singing permitted him to be unprofessional on stage. And then just when I was getting into the groove of the show, it was over. It lasted just about 40 minutes and the band left the stage abruptly.

So here are my two middle fingers to your lack of professionalism Mr. Sam France. Rock n’ Roll deserves better than you.

2. Mini Mansions at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: This is one of the bands I began to explore after I found out they were playing at Wooly’s. Simple songs (See Death is a Girl, Vertigo) with good hooks and better than average production value. Their entire album is worth listening to on repeat and the songs sounded every bit as good live. It was a 3 piece band that remained rather quiet in their performance – which was surprising considering the lead vocalist is the bassist from Queens of the Stone Age. I did thoroughly enjoy the basslines through all their songs; in fact I will go ahead and say that that is their strength. Having said that, I did always feel that their self-titled album was not just a good album, but more of a missed opportunity to be a great album. So here is to hoping they make an even better one next time!

3. Royal Blood at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: This band was actually the main act with Mini Mansions the opening act that night. Can I just say that they blew my mind? Yes I could, and that would be an understatement. To start with, this is just a 2 piece band. Drummer and vocalist who also plays this bass guitar that also somehow, by magic, plays the lead (or is it the other way round?). No kidding. A weird set of pedals and other mysterious objects let him play the lead and bass at the same time. The riffs that come out of this monstrosity of an instrument reminded me of Led Zeppelin when they were at their best. Not just in the sound, but more in the attitude and rock-out-ability (whatever that means). Add to this, meaningful melody and lyrics that make you want to just get up and punch someone (I got a gun for my mouth and a bullet with your name on it; But a trigger full of heartbeat pulling from an empty pocket) – and all this makes the perfect potion you want to drink just before you go to war. The duo put on a high energy show too and everyone at Wooly’s left feeling energized and clearly ready to punch someone in the face!

4. Grace Potter at Brenton Skating Plaza, Des Moines, IA: I am just going to go ahead and say it: Grace Potter is the best performer I have seen in my entire life. She will probably continue to be a mid-size venue filling and late afternoon festival spot filling artist for the rest of her career. But that will never tell the full story of the quality of the music, the spirit of her lyrics, and most of all, the energy of her shows. This was the 4th time I saw her Live, and was probably the best experience of them all. Couple sufficient alcohol consumption with friends who know all the songs (like I do) and who want to dance the entire night through (like I do) and the stage was set for an extremely memorable night. She debuted her solo stuff but the highlight was always going to be the stuff she did with The Nocturnals. Songs like ‘Loneliest Soul’, ‘Keepsake’, and ‘Turntable’ are the kind that get even the most uptight person in the groove and dancing. I haven’t checked out her solo album, but I am hoping it is as good as ‘The Lion, The Beast, The Beat’. (Good news is that I will be seeing her again this year).

Special shout out to Jessica Lea Mayfield who opened for Grace Potter. She has the second most depressing song I discovered in 2015 (I Can’t Lie to You, Love).

5. Umphrey’s McGee at Brenton Skating Plaza, Des Moines: A friend of mine (who has lost count of number of times he has seen UM Live) had been continuously suggesting me to watch them Live. One fine day last year I did. I almost didn’t, but then I found 2 willing friends and I did. They played for over 3 hours with about a 20 min break in between. What I realized was that it didn’t matter if you have never heard them play before or haven’t heard their name. Their music was just phenomenal, and the light show was on par with the music. They even covered David Bowie’s Let’s Dance (well before he passed away). It is a band that you have to go see as a matter of general principle if they are playing nearby. They are playing again this summer and I intend to see them.

6. Steven Wilson at Barrymore Theater, Madison, WI: Perhaps the concert I had been looking forward to ever since I had seen him 2 years before that. He had just released Hand.Cannot.Erase and I totally wanted to see him play live. He did not have Marco (drums) or Guthrie (lead guitar) but he had equally capable replacements. He played the full HCE album interspersed with some of his older solo stuff. The highlight of the show, however, was Routine from HCE. He introduced the song as the most depressing he has ever created, and I tend to agree with that. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the visceral, heart breaking animated video that played on the screen for the entire song. I promise you most of the people in the crowd were either ready to burst out in tears or were already shedding them by the time the song ended. I myself was no exception and I rate that to be one of the most intense experiences of my life. The video wasn’t released online until the end of the year and was only played at his concerts, which preserved the exclusivity of that experience that much longer.*

In addition to HCE, he did play Lazarus, a song that I love and one that he hadn’t played when I saw him play with Porcupine Tree in 2010. So that closed the circle on that in some way and I was truly happy. He also played Sleep Together, another PT song, but I cannot remember if he played that in 2010. I do wish he would play more from The Raven.

The thing that did pleasantly surprise me was that he engaged the crowd frequently and on things he had something to say about. He spoke about making depressing music (“…as opposed to what else?”), accepting grief and loss, his new signature guitar, and even singled out a group of people he had spotted at the previous show (“You realize it is the same shit every night right?”). I had taken a friend of mine who had never heard about him to the show and he was mightily impressed. It was best encapsulated with his first comment as soon as we got out of the venue: ‘I need a drink’!

* I did see SW again this year in Chicago and it was only then that I saw the Routine video for the second time even though I could have seen it online by then. In any case, the 2016 show  led to a series of events I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams.

7. Lake Street Dive at Simon Estes Amphitheater, Des Moines, IA: I think this is a jazz band. There is jazz for sure, but there is some indie rock in there as well. So call it what you want. But there is no denying that voice will capture your attention anytime you hear it, and more so when you hear it Live. The band played a stripped down version of their instruments because of some unknown reason, but that barely seemed to matter at all. The band could have been non existent and then just the vocals would have been just fine. They played most of the songs from their ‘Bad Self Portraits’ album except for the one that I believe is their best song (Just Ask). But hey they covered Hall n Oats’ Rich Girl, so that was awesome! Also, did I mention about that voice?

And I am seeing them again this summer!

8. Electric Six at Vaudewille Mews, Des Moines, IA: I dare anyone to listen to Electric Six play High Voltage live and not be jumping around for the entire duration of the song. Come to think of it, pretty much all their songs are like that – which meant I was jumping around for pretty much the entire duration of their show. (Actually listening to that song right now as I write this at a coffee shop, I just want to start jumping around right here!) I had listened to their songs only in passing and found them to be rather upbeat intended to make you get the fuck out of your couch and do something – preferably along the lines of smashing something within immediate reach. When played live, however, that smashing-things-around-you turned out to just be the baseline. The only way the crowd could express their energy was by jumping around or headbanging. I chose the former. And I honestly do not remember a single concert where I was jumping through the whole damn show. I am fairly certain I do not possess that energy and which is why I was surprised to find myself do just that at that show. Now if only I could go to an Electric Six show every morning, I would probably end up that much more productive at work.

Well at least they are playing again this year, so once a year is good enough I suppose!

Next part will include my experience at the 8035 and Hinterland music festival: Wilco, Weezer, Lettuce, TV on the Radio, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Brandi Carlisle, and many more.

Minimizing Decisions and Going to the Gym

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously on NOT MAKING ANY DECISIONS: No Decision Weekend

Winter Diaries from Work Travels

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

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

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

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A Desolate Room with a Bleak View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Stressful Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t pray for us

We don’t need no Modern Jesus

To roll with us

The only rule we heed is

Never giving up

The only faith we have

Is faith in us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wild and Exhausting Summer

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

I AM A GOLDEN GOD!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Back Home After 3 Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I will go back to reality.

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

Taking a Dudeist Vacation

An often denied fact concerns the accumulation of stress during any vacation. Be it a trip to a national park, a visit to a big city, a hike through the woods, a road trip – vacations usually consist of stress filled days that are stitched together midst the experiences of visiting new places or hanging out with friends/family. A fair amount of planning has already gone into the vacation: we visit these places on day one, drive to here on day two, meetup with friends on day three hiking, camp and hike further on day four, drive back on day five, take flight back home on day six. Feel free to make up your own schedule. We all have.

We want to ‘cover’ as many places as we can jam into our schedule. Consequently, this ends up demanding a lot more effort in getting to those places and ‘covering’ them while we are there. We want to put up photographs on Facebook showing us at as many different locations as possible. We want to tick all those places off our bucket list – whether they are on it or not. Life is so short after all…..right?

Getting started on a vacation with an agenda is what most people do. There is a certain expectation of returns for all the investment you are putting into this vacation. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It helps us see the places we always wanted to see in a timely and economical fashion. But it is also important to recognize the role of the agenda in building up stress levels during any vacation.

And that is what I decided to avoid last week when I took a few days off work. No agenda, no expectations, no stress: the Dudeist-Vacation

Because being The Dude is awesome

I took a Wednesday off work and this is a list of things I did in Des Moines that day:

1. Spend 2 hours eating breakfast at Perkup Cafe

2. Cash checks.

3. Visit the library, read Dune for an hour and rent 5 audiobooks for my drive the next day.

4. Watch Chelsea draw with Galatasaray in the Champions League at the Royal Mile drinking beer and eating lunch.

5. Come back home and watch a couple of episodes of True Detective and listen to a couple of LPs.

6. Pack.

There is not one item in the list that can be even remotely classified as ‘constructive’. It was one of the most awesome days in recent memory. A complete day of doing absolutely nothing that required me to acknowledge any stress at all. Just like The Dude lives.

This inspired me to extend the same thinking for the rest of my vacation. So when I reached Ann Arbor the next day, I had absolutely nothing on my mind that I wanted to do. Sure I wanted to see my friend successfully defend his PhD. But that was it. Other than that, I was just hanging out doing absolutely nothing.

I drove to Detroit on Saturday to visit a couple of my other good friends. The only agenda I had for that trip was to visit the Motown museum. Other than that, all I told my friend was that I wanted to drink some beer and buy some records. And that is exactly what I did: drink beer at a brewery and buy some records at a record store. To kill a couple of hours, my friend and I hung out at a coffee shop chatting. Then I ate dinner and went back to Ann Arbor. That was it. That was how I spent my only day in Detroit. Barely any agenda and still extremely satisfying.

My friend  (now with a DR. before his name) and I then drove to Chicago because it is on my way back to Des Moines. And also because Chicago is awesome. It is an even more awesome place to do absolutely nothing and just hang out with no agenda. All I wanted to do was meet a friend, drink some beer, eat some deep dish pizza and buy some records. And that is what we did. Met a friend, drank some beer, ate deep dish pizza and bought a lot of records. We also celebrated his PhD at the Signature Lounge on top of Hancock tower with a glass of Glenmorangie on the rocks overlooking the night view of the entire city from up top. I stayed one more night and went to a downtown breakfast place in the morning and just sat there by myself for two hours doing absolutely nothing. And then I drove back to Des Moines. Never visited any tourist attraction, never did any sightseeing, and did not even look up any ‘things to do in Chicago’.

It was the best vacation I could have had under those circumstances. For a week, I did not even have to acknowledge the idea of stress – even minuscule amounts of it. There was nothing that could go wrong when you were doing absolutely nothing. And I was able to do that because I had absolutely no agenda set for my vacation. No expectations, no plans – just a whole bunch of doing nothing. More importantly, it was a whole bunch of doing nothing in different places – which is awesome.

After I came back, I realized that anytime I did absolutely nothing for extended periods of time is always awesome. You should try it too. It would be important to identify those particular activities you would want to do that do not require any set agenda whatsoever. To me, apparently, they include eating breakfast, drinking beer and buying records. It is just something that you do because you like it and you don’t care how it turns out. There is absolutely nothing at stake when you are doing these activities. Only you know what those activities are. And once you know what they are, you should just take a vacation doing those things – wherever you want to. For all I care, take a flight half way across the country to just sit at a coffee shop and do nothing for an entire day. (That would be an awesome idea by the way).

All in all, it is an extremely satisfying and fulfilling experience to just be able to do nothing and continue to live a normal life. Also, the very act of doing nothing for extended periods of time tells you that “nothing’s fucked!”. The Dude’s lifestyle is not just for a character in a Coen Brothers movie. It is an increasingly overlooked way of life for us every day men and women. Maybe we will never be able to live like The Dude every single day of our lives. But, at the very least, when we decide to take time off, we can remember to ask ourselves the question:

Always ask the question

“What would The Dude do?”

And then decide to do absolutely nothing. Because it is always awesome to be The Dude.

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PS: After this experience, I have decided to take a weekday off from work every 2-3 weeks and do absolutely nothing. I won’t be at home, but I intend to do absolutely nothing constructive the entire day. It is like my day of rest.

2013 in Review: All the Concerts

Hopefully I get to do this every year. 2012 was awesome. 2013 started off awesome but kinda tapered down towards the end. But it still had some phenomenal highlights. Here is a quick recap:

1. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines: So this officially made Grace Potter the band I had seen the most number of times Live at 3. And I will watch her live again and again and again. I still maintain that there is nobody else I have seen who can match her stage presence. Having said that, her concert at the Nitefall on the River series in 2012 had set the bar so high that it was never going to be matched again. Memorable experience for sure and I will donate my money without a blink of my eye to see her perform Live again. She really means it when she says that she performs every concert like it is her last.

2. Bosnian Rainbows at Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis: After my good friend introduced me to the universe of Omar-Rodriguez Lopez, I was always going to go watch Bosnian Rainbows – his latest venture – in Minneapolis. Dude looks like he just got out of high school and he really gets into his music.

Bosnian Rainbows at Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis

Terri Gender Bender knows how to put on a show and I loved the sound. Best part of the show was when – at the end – Omar thanked the crowd at the bar for coming out and supporting the band. He did that by speaking directly to the crowd instead of talking into the mic. Respect.  Full Review here. 

3. Sigur Ros at Starlight Theater in Kansas City: What can I say? I think the correct terminology is ‘a religious experience’ or ‘a spiritual experience’. I was going through a very gloomy stage of my life largely due to the never ending winter. It had taken a toll on me and I was barely surviving. And then when I watched them Live, it was close to being a life altering experience. It is one of those experiences when you reach a higher state of consciousness and you have an epiphany about your life. No need for any drugs, just the sadness in his voice is sufficient. As I wrote in my detailed recollection, “I do not know if I found the answer I was looking for. But I definitely found the answer I needed to know.”

4. Steven Wilson at Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis: Having missed his previous two visits to the US (Blackfield and first solo tour), I had to make sure that I saw him Live this time around. Conveniently playing at Minneapolis over the weekend too. So pretty much a no brainer and everything else had to just wait. His latest album ‘The Raven…” is his best piece of work since Deadwing. Drive Home and The Watchmaker along with The Raven moved me close to tears. But the song I really was looking forward to and one that had grown on me was ‘Deform to form a Star’ from his earlier album.

Steven Wilson at Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis

Not disappointed. I ended up buying The Raven T-Shirt (the one with the spooky moon) and it has been one shirt that has attracted a lot of attention everywhere I went. No seriously, I have had a whole bunch of people come to me and talk to me about it everywhere I went.

5. Opeth with Katatonia at Wooly’s in Des Moines: Opeth was in Des Moines! Do you believe it?!?? It had been like ages since I had listened to Opeth. I had seen them Live at IITM a long ass time ago. But this time I was watching them in a significantly smaller venue – like all of 10 ft away and with a glass of Jameson in my hands. Always better with Jameson in my hands. He played Hessian Peel. That made my day. I will freely admit I had stopped listening to metal for a while by then. But Opeth with Katatonia in Des Moines?? Well, I just had to see them Live as a matter of general principle. Fully satisfied.

6. Fleetwood Mac at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines: This is a band I had wanted to see Live since high school. One of the few bands whose music connected to me at a very fundamental level. Stevie Nicks’ live voice is different than what it sounds on the albums. But then if I wanted to listen to her sound like she does on the album, I would just play the album. And that is what made the concert really good. The band just sounded different – with more of a live music feel. I think it is important that I fully attest to the fact that Lindsay Buckingham has an awesome awesome voice – and he is an extremely underrated guitar player. Mick Fleetwood is OLD. But I don’t think he knows that. Dude was drumming the shit out of every song – and THEN he decided to do a drum solo. Talk about passion. The only thing disappointing about the sound was John’s bass. It was barely audible. Extremely disappointing considering how much I grew up inspired by those basslines.

They played every single song I wanted them to. Of course there was no Christine, so they only played those that had Stevie/Lindsay on the vocals. Best surprise was when they played ‘Sisters on the moon’ and ‘Gold Dust Woman’! Did not see those coming at all! 

Apart from the songs themselves, one aspect of the concert I truly admired was the genuine acknowledgement and appreciation the band members showed to the crowd for their continued support. It was the appreciation of a band that has been around for decades together, who have seen it all, who have everything they ever wanted, who have absolutely nothing left to prove to anybody, and who realize that after all these years they are only around because their fans want them to be around. Stevie Nicks spoke at length to the crowd before the last song actually explaining how she felt about all the support she has received from the band’s fans all through her career. Truly remarkable gesture from the band and the crowd knew it. 

All in all, very very satisfying concert – more so because it was something I had pretty much given up on ever witnessing. Could have been even better if it wasn’t for that annoying 40 something woman in front of me who kept dancing like she had the entire place to herself – hitting people around her without as much as a sense of space. I get it – people enjoy music differently. But then, still, f*** you.

7. 80-35 Music Festival in Des Moines: This was 2 days of awesome fun. This was the first time that I truly experienced a music festival – everything it has to offer. I realized that music festivals are not about watching a lot of your favorite bands play in one place. It is more about just wandering around and finding a band that you had no idea about playing some wonderful music and being drawn to it. The festival was skewed more towards alternative and indie rock bands, but also included a few folk, acoustic bands and a bunch of DJs. Biggest discovery for me was Deerhunter, Yeasayers and Umphrey’s McGee. Deerhunter especially. Who knew I would just walk into some noise  influenced band at a music festival in Des Moines? Always loved the summer atmosphere on display during the festival. Reminds me of why it is OK to live through the god forsaken winter.

8. Telescopes with LSD and the Search for God: This was right after the 8035 festival and it was all noise and shoegaze. As I wrote in my detailed recollection, as far as the sound goes, well, FUCK! I felt that I had finally got what I was unknowingly looking for all my life. That one sound that would just ‘hit the spot’. The Telescope’s noise and shoegaze hit the spot alright. And more importantly, it opened me up to a whole new set of bands and sounds. Perfect Noise and mindblowing Shoegaze. Special shout out to LSD and the Search for God. Awesome Stoner music.

9. Blue Oyster Cult at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines: Free show at the State Fair! WoW! I didn’t know these guys were still even playing. The only day I was able to go the fair, I caught these guys playing all their hits – every one of them. Fuckin’ A!

10. Tame Impala and The National at Starlight Theater in Kansas City: The best album of 2013 as far as I have explored music is Tame Impala’s Lonerism. Finally a band that knows how to use the bass guitar. Tame Impala is the biggest discovery I have made in all of 2013 and I got to see them live. It was a short setlist – a little more than an hour – but they played most of their new album. You just got to check out their latest album.

The National was the main act but I had personally gone there to see Tame Impala. But clearly The National is awesome. The vocalist dude could sing one song in a haunting melancholic voice and the next he would be screaming like he was in a hardcore punk rock band. Great songs too.

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So that was it. All the concerts I went to in 2013. 2014 has so far started off slow, but am looking forward to seeing Mogwai in Des Moines. I am also going to make an additional effort to visit the local smaller venues more frequently. After all, music is music. Where I discover it doesn’t make any difference.

2 Months with My Parents in America

It is now a little more than 4 years since I set foot in America. The last 2 of them have been under far more financial freedom and stability than ever before in my life. It was during this time that I traveled significantly – taking in new experiences and dwelling in the wonder of what I saw. I went to dozens and dozens of concerts, visited big cities, explored national parks, discovered places that even none of my American friends knew about. At no point in time did I forget to appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to do all those things that I did and to visit all the places I wanted to. Yes I had to work hard and go through significant troubles and bear through uncertain times to get to where I am now – like so many of my friends who chose the same path. But behind all of that was this one constant, unchanging thing: the  support, encouragement and trust of my parents. Having always been very close to them since as long as I can think of, they gave me a sense of belonging and a platform I always knew I could fall back on in times of need. I have absolutely no hesitation in declaring that I would not be where I am today without their effort over the past 25 years or so. And so, during my travels in America, everywhere I went and felt the wonder of having discovered something beautiful, I ALWAYS imagined myself sharing that same experience with my parents – to bring them there and show them what they had helped me to do.

I finally got the opportunity when my parents’ visa got approved (in what ended up becoming a 1 minute interview with exactly one question asked). They arrived in the second week of July and I immediately absolved myself of all responsibilities related even remotely to the kitchen and other household stuff- including but not limited to the maintenance and upkeep of the house, laundry, dishes etc. My mom was more than happy to take over for the duration of her stay and I just let her run the house – like she has done for the past 27 years or so.

I was more than happy to have them at my place. But there is no denying my apprehension about how my lifestyle would be affected with their arrival – especially with having lived by myself for over 2 1/2 years. Fortunately, I was able to work my way around it and my parents were understanding of my evening disappearances to see my friends. And I have to admit, just the food almost made it worth it. I had long forgotten about the idea of a proper breakfast during weekdays. There was also the whole thing about someone actually serving me food – that felt like a long forgotten experience. My mom’s cooking also reminded me about the existence of so many different dishes that I immediately decided that I would simply over eat at every single opportunity and not care one bit about potential weight gain. And today, I am extremely happy to have over eaten (to the point of feeling gluttonous) at least 3 times a day continuously for about 2 months straight.

There were exactly 4 places I wanted to take my parents to. And I am very happy that I was able to accomplish all of that and under very pleasant circumstances. I got my parents to ‘hangout’ at the Old Market district in Omaha – something they never got tired of. It was and still is one of the most beautiful few blocks of downtown I have ever seen, and my parents clearly shared my view. The 3 days we spent in Chicago was extremely fulfilling too. More than the downtown boat ride, Navy Pier or the Shedd Aquarium, I had one specific thing in my mind that I wanted to do. On the second night, I took my parents to the Observatory on top of Hancock tower. A mind blowing night view of the captivating Chicago skyline – especially when you get to look down upon it. But it was not just the view that I had in mind. Yes, both my parents were thrilled beyond words at the sight in front of them. But it was only when I got my dad a glass of Jameson, right there in the Observatory, did I feel the experience complete. Sharing a drink with my dad at the Observatory was the first thing that had come to my mind when I had visited the place previously. And finally being able to do it felt like a landmark moment and a perfect celebration of my relationship with him.

As far back as I can remember, my dad has always wanted to see the Niagara Falls. My mom too. So I took them there in the Maid of the Mist. For about 5 minutes, we were completely transported to a different world – one where all you could see was this gigantic rushing mass of water. It really is one of those out-of-this-world experiences when you are at the foot of the falls in that small boat and looking up at this massive sea of water falling with an incomparable intensity. It was there at that moment that I asked them to remind themselves of where they came from, how and where they spent their childhood, and all the things they went through. And with that as the context, I asked them to look around and see where they were at that moment. The contrast dawned on them immediately and with that, a strong sense of fulfillment took me over.

Our trip to New York City happened mainly because my parents wanted to go there. I had no intention to visit the place as a big city experience has never been my idea of travelling somewhere. If you want a tip, here it is: Don’t go to NYC unless what you want to see is swarms of tourists every step of the way, a big gaping hole in your pocket and generally nothing to admire. (I will admit the Museum of Modern Art was a clear exception. I saw Starry Night and THIS painting which I now have on my wall).  But my parents wanted to do the tourist’s trip which inevitably included the Empire State Building (and the mandatory 2 hour waiting period), the Statue of Liberty (an eyesore that is to be avoided under all circumstances), a drive through Wall Street (the only place where it is OK to openly admire the testicles of a bull) and the Brooklyn Bridge (good engineering, no aesthetic offering). So clearly, I did not enjoy it (and I would definitely not be going back) but I was fully aware that this trip was not for me – it was for my parents. And so it never occurred to me to complain at all.

But perhaps the best was really kept for the last. I took my parents to Wisconsin over Labor Day Weekend. Arguing against my parents’ wishes to see another big city in Minneapolis, I took them to House on the Rock, Madison, New Glarus (including the Brewery there) and Lake Geneva. The House on the Rock was where I really wanted to take them. It is a place which nobody can ever satisfactorily describe. It is a celebration of humans going beyond the limits of imagination. It is a reward for those who seek something beyond the mainstream offerings of tourism. And my parents were left in complete awe and wonder – and rightly so. Trips to New Glarus, New Glarus Brewing company and Lake Geneva was really an eye opener for my parents with regard to the other side of America – the one with the small town, antique shop and record store feel to it. My dad was particularly pleased with the New Glarus Brewery – a place which felt more like some ruins in an old Mediterranean city than a brewery where you could sample some of the best beer in the Midwest. Lake Geneva was perhaps the best portrayal of a small town American city which had maintained its small town feel in spite of the popularity of the place among tourists. Both my parents enjoyed it and the whole trip was an extremely satisfactory end to their travels here.

In addition to the travels, I was particularly happy that my parents just took in what the American Midwest – and specifically Des Moines – had to offer with great satisfaction. The extremely good nature of the people, the laid back lifestyle, a complete lack of noise or air pollution and a beautiful and safe suburb experience – all served as the perfect getaway from the stress of working life. My mom declared her love for Dunkin’ Donuts, making that her first go to place for breakfast in Chicago and NYC. My dad had never been spoilt for choice in beer before he came here (For one, he was not even aware that there were options beyond Lager). So I took him to the El Bait Shop on his birthday and he was clearly overwhelmed at their selection of beer. But perhaps my dad’s biggest achievement during his stay here was his discovery of Pink Floyd and his strong desire to see The Wire. Clearly, my dad is going in the right direction.

They left a couple of days after the Wisconsin trip. My mom made sure I did not have to cook for the following 2 weeks and I still have quite a bit of her cooking in the fridge. They took back with them bags loaded with goodies for all my family back home (including what is perhaps the best of the lot –  a ‘Better Call Saul’ shirt for my cousin) along with some memorabilia from every one of their trips. But to me, their trip was more about all the things that they had always wanted to do, all the places I wanted to show them and all the experiences I wanted to share with them. It was also an opportunity for me to connect with them after a long time. And I can happily say that I was able achieve all of them.

All in all, very satisfying experience for my parents and me. Now I am back to living my old lifestyle and still savoring my mom’s cooking.