Category Archives: The things that happen only to ME…
It was May of 2010 and I had just landed at the Bangalore International Airport early in the morning. I was coming back home after my first two semesters at Virginia Tech. By the time I reached home, it was about 8 AM and I was already hungry. My mom was clearly enthusiastic about cooking for me, but that morning she mentioned that I would have the Idli & Chutney that my grandmother had cooked an hour earlier. Apparently, my grandmother – who lived just a few blocks down the road – had woken up early just so she could cook breakfast for me. And she knew exactly what to cook. The Idli and Chutney that she used to make was the kind of stuff that could fix anything and everything. I think the word I am looking for is ‘panacea’.
So here I was, not having eaten ‘home food’ for over 10 months and my mom served me my grandmother’s best creation for breakfast. I sat in my chair and broke the first idli into a small piece, took a generous dipping of the chutney and put it in my mouth.
To this day, I cannot think of a more profound moment I have had when I ate something. Before I could chew the food and swallow it, I had broken down and was crying like a little baby. It was not just the feeling of experiencing something after a long time that made me cry. It was the realization that I was experiencing after a long time, something I had just taken for granted all my life that hit me like a cannon ball. And I didn’t have to tell my mom anything. She knew exactly why I was crying and that there was just no consoling me at that point. I cried for some 10-15 mins before I resumed eating my breakfast. Needless to say, I stuffed myself with what would have otherwise been a sizable breakfast for 3 people.
In hindsight, that realization seems a lot more obvious. But it does not make it any less significant. Food is one of the things that we are conditioned to take for granted (unless you are in a poor financial situation or related circumstances) while we were growing up. We always assumed that no matter what happens in this world – barring a natural or man made disaster – we would always have dinner served at the time we expect it to. So much so, that we even felt entitled to complain when it was delayed by a few minutes. Breakfast was always prepared 15-20 mins before we left for school or college. It just had to be. There was no other option. It would be an apocalyptic hell if it was delayed even for a few minutes. And all the food we were served had also better be something we liked to eat.
And so being served food that I preferred, at the right time, day after day for over 20 years was something I had gotten so used to that I had never comprehended the idea of anything different. Even when I lived in the hostels during college, the hostel mess always had the food ready at regular times. In any case, I went back home every 2 or 3 weeks during my undergraduate years. So it was only when I moved half way across the world here to the USA did I face the extremely strange situation of nobody serving me my preferred food 3 times a day at my new home.
In hindsight, the way I initially reacted to that is almost comical. I was in complete denial for the first couple of weeks and just did not eat any breakfast. I ate out for lunch and made some makeshift dinner (read cereal). It was at least a month before I came to terms with it and started cooking. Fortunately for me, I found that I took immense pleasure in the act of cooking. And after that there was no looking back. I learnt – mostly through experimentation and long phone calls with my mom – to cook most of the dishes that my mom made on a regular basis and took great pride in sending her photographs of my cooking. Needless to say, she was very impressed and very happy that I was eating home cooked food. And so after the first couple of months, I rarely ate outside and continued to get better at cooking. I even became popular among my Indian and American friends at VT for my cooking!
But when I had that first bite of Idli Chutney on my first return back home, I also knew that I would never ever match the taste that my mom or my grandmother made. Because you see, the dishes my mom or my grandmother ever made were not just made up of spices and vegetables. They were always made with unconditional love. And I suppose it really was THAT ingredient that I had taken for granted in all the food I had ever been served at home. It was also the ingredient that I had missed the most and could never put into my dishes. No wonder I broke down when I had that breakfast back then.
A few months after that, when I was back in the US and having just graduated, I learnt that my grandmother had unexpectedly passed away. I will never see her again and that pains me to no end. I will also never have her Idli and Chutney once more, but I know that she is still out there helping me to recreate that taste I fear I will never get to experience again.
So yes, we take a lot of things for granted and don’t even know it. It only comes to the surface when it is absent and absent for a long time. So enjoy it while you still have a chance. But also, always pause to appreciate its existence while it lasts.
Over the past year or so, I have become mightily obsessed with the board game Settlers of Catan. It involves collecting, managing and trading resources to build settlements and cities – with the final goal of being the first person to achieve a preset development stage. But that is just the gist of it. There are innumerable strategies that can be incorporated into the game. But there is one common trait to any strategy I choose to use. And that is to ensure that I ‘spend’ my resources as fast as possible in order to ‘build’ more settlements/roads/cities. This means that I do not ‘save’ my resources with the hope that I build a lot more at a later time. And because of this, when the robber is played, I usually do not have to forfeit my excess resources which I might have otherwise had. So as and when I get resources, I ‘spend’ them and acquire a road/settlement/city/D-Card. This typically increases my development points tally immediately. And as I keep doing that, I keep inching towards the target development points of 10 (varies). Of course, there is some other strategy always involved regarding whether you build ‘vertically’ or ‘horizontally’ or if you plan to connect all your settlements for the longest road points, etc. But in any case, ALL these strategies require me to ‘spend’ my resources to add to my development points. Saving has almost never helped my cause.
This brought me to observe and question my own spending habits. What do I do with my money? Do I tend to spend it fast or do I tend to save first? Do I live a comfortable life spending money within my means, or do I live a frugal lifestyle while I save money for some unknown future purpose? The answers to these questions was extremely simple and glaring to me.
I am an unequivocal and unapologetic spender. I spend money on every single thing that I decide is desirable/necessary and worth it. I spend, what some consider, an obscene amount of money on music related products and experiences. I am more than happy to spend a few hundred dollars extra in rent just so I can avoid having a roommate. I recently went on what turned out to be the most expensive vacation I had ever taken – and all by myself too. I upgraded my car within 2 years of buying one that was brand new then. I spent a small fortune on having my parents over and taking them on numerous vacations here in the US. And I continue to spend money to live a very comfortable lifestyle in which I do not deny myself any product or experience that I find desirable and can afford.
No. I am not a rich guy. Far from it. I still pay out loans, I send money back home every month. And when I do my accounting every month, all I see is that I just about break even. In a way, I just barely make ends meet. Only difference is that my ends are sufficiently far apart for me to live a very comfortable lifestyle. The point I am trying to make here is not that you can do more things and buy more stuff if you have more money. This is already understood and is nothing more than common sense. What I am more fascinated about is just the idea of NOT spending money, or as is more popularly known – saving money. Why do people save money? What incentive do they have to save money? Why do people give up everyday comforts of life just to save more money?
It is the first question that I am still trying to find the answer to. Most replies I get have something to do with the words ‘for the future’, or ‘in case of emergency’, or ‘you’ll never know when it might come in handy’, etc. Granted, there are people who save money for a specific reason, such as paying for school, children’s fund, etc. It is not these people that puzzle me. What does puzzle me are the kind that sacrifice everyday comforts just so they can ‘save more money’. These are the people who have no idea why they are saving the said money. They just go with the idea that all that saved money will come in handy ‘at some point in the future’. And they live a frugal lifestyle – not because they feel comfortable with it, but because they just want to save more money!
When I observed this contrast between the way I handle my money and people like these who are just all about not spending, I stopped for a second and wondered if I was doing something wrong here myself. Perhaps I should be saving some money after all? Maybe some emergency is just around the corner? I might even feel proud of myself for controlling my spending? I can prove to myself that I don’t need any materialistic pleasures? That is supposed to be a good thing, right? Maybe I will need to start saving right now so that later my future kids can do something for free? Maybe it will work as a down payment on a mortgage that I might take on a house sometime in the future? Maybe I should save money just for the sake of it?
Naa…..Fuck all that!
Those questions pretty quickly began to sound like nonsense to me. The idea of ‘What if?’ does not appeal to me. Neither does the idea of giving up something now so that something else can be done in the future. I am all about right now. Instant gratification? No. More like enjoying the present moment – because that is where we live – in the right now. Not in some distant future that you have imagined – no, decided – is going to take place. I am all about making the most of what the world has to offer to me – today and right now. I do not understand the idea of consciously making myself live less comfortably now for some perceived benefit in the distant future.
For example, I have spent about $5000 over the past 4 years going to concerts and all other music related purchases. $5000 is always going to be a lot of money. But, as I sit here typing this post, would I rather have that $5000 in my bank account now? Well the answer is an easy NO for me. But if I had chosen to save that $5000 for ‘some future use’, just imagine what I would have missed out on in the meantime? All the innumerable moments of inspiration and wonder that I experienced at every one of those concerts would be gone. Those were the moments that defined my life for 4 years. It is just horrible to think of what I would have missed out on if I had chosen not to spend all that money. And then when I ask myself what kind of a life I had been living the past 4 years, I would never have a satisfactory answer. “Oh I was just saving up so I can lead a better life in the future” is the most nonsensical answer I could give to that. So, NO, I would never ever want that $5000 in my bank today at the cost of having missed all the things that defined my life for 4 years.
Back in 6th grade, I read 3 verses of Someshwara Shathaka – a collection of 100 verses by a 14-15th century Kannada poet. The first two words of the 2nd verse is something that has resonated with me all my life:
Translation: What’s the point of having money that is not spent?
It is that simple. A few years ago, I was watching The Wire. During one of the many many memorable scenes, I heard Omar Little say something extremely similar – except he said it with infinitely more badassery. And anything Omar says is wisdom from the gods. Here, watch it for yourself.
Found the money quote? Alright, here let me break it down for you
Omar breaks into a cash rich poker game where Marlo Stanfield is playing and proceeds to rob him.
(This is followed by an even more epic quote but I am sure you can figure that out from the video. BTW, if you have not watched The Wire, you will).
And that is pretty much the mindset with which I live. Just like in Settlers of Catan, I earn resources. Once I earn these resources, I almost immediately spend them all in order to buy products and experiences that makes my life at THAT moment more comfortable and enjoyable. Money in my bank account is just a number. Money spent, on the other hand, immediately implies something that I had gained. I do not wait for the future before I choose to lead a better life. I choose to lead a better life right now. And I am extremely glad that my parents fully approve of this.
All I heard about money during my formative years (except from my parents) was how evil it was and that materialistic pleasures were the devil’s luring, and how one must find happiness in non-monetary things. Right now, that advice looks like a complete piece of BS to me. All the experiences I have had with all the money I have spent have generated such intense feelings in me and have provided me inspiration at such a fundamental level on so many occasions, that it is hard to not feel in awe of it. For someone to say that I shouldn’t be doing that is just plain dumb.
Sure, all that money in your bank account does not follow you when you die and go to heaven. Which is exactly why you should spend all of it NOW while you LIVE and die with nothing in the bank.
PS: If you think this applies to gambling, you are a worse douchebag than I thought you were.
It’s a simple question, but one that is perhaps the hardest to ask of yourself.
“Am I Replaceable?”
A few years ago, a friend of mine working for a company that provided background checking services decided to quit the place as she found a new job elsewhere. When she quit, nobody in her company expressed even the least bit of concern that someone who had a lot of experience and who was good at their job was leaving. The way they looked at it was that once she left, someone else would be in line to take over her position. Simply put, she was ‘replaceable’.
That was, like I mentioned, a few years ago. But over the past couple of days, for reasons unknown to me, I have revisited the idea of being replaceable very deeply. So I am wondering:
Are We Replaceable?
All of us like to think of ourselves as unique, as one of a kind. There is something different in us that separates us from everybody else. It must be in our character. So on and so forth. Right? Right?
Just take a look at where you are, what you have done in your life, what you have achieved in your life, who you are married to, who your friends are, what kind of life they are leading, what kind of a life you envision for the future, and what kind of a life the other people you know in your life have envisioned for their future? Fact is that every one of us have done something or the other with our lives. We have gone to school, perhaps gone to college, got a bachelor’s degree, perhaps even a Master’s degree, (and for an immigrant like me, made the trip to the USA for my Master’s), some of us are now married to someone, maybe we even have kids or are planning to in the near future, have a steady job that promises good career growth, helping out a lot of people at the job, working on new products, etc. etc.
Which is all good – as long as people agree that all these things that they have done could have/would have been done by any one of a lot of other people as well had they been in the same position as they were. That is to say, we haven’t done anything that someone else (among a lot of people) in our position would not have done. Or in other words: “We are replaceable.”
Anytime we live our lives by putting in the effort to do mostly what we really ‘have’ to do in order to be considered successful in the eyes of society and family, we are replaceable. This is because there is always someone else who, with similar upbringing and societal influences, will achieve the same things with the same opportunities that we have had.
But what about our relationships, you might ask? Surely each person is loved for his unique character and personality, right? Else, relationships could not possibly work at all, correct?
Both my parents have shown me unconditional love all my life and I am extremely grateful for it. If, for instance, my character and personality was instead more like one of the dozens of friends I know, my parents would still love me just the same. I could have been like any one of the many different people I know and my parents would have loved me just the same. What about a husband and wife? Surely there is a higher demand of a specific character requirement there, right?
Think of your partner right now. Now, also think of some of the other people of the opposite sex of about the same age that you know fairly well and you respect. Now think about what would have happened if you had met one of these other people at the right time and under the right conditions. You would perhaps be sharing your life with this other person instead of your current partner. It just so happened that you ended up meeting your current partner under the right conditions and so you ended up with him/her.
So essentially, anyone (of the many many people in this world) fulfilling your set of basic criteria, who happens to be at a particular place at a particular time and under the right set of circumstances will very likely end up as your partner. Whatever may be your partner’s quirks or character flaws, you will just learn to adjust, adapt and not complain about it in the long run. And the sense of ‘irreplaceability’ that you may feel towards a person after being with them for a long time comes not from a sense of individual uniqueness, but more from a sense of security, familiarity and an inherent fear of change.
So yes, your partner is replaceable. And since that applies reciprocally as well, it means that you are replaceable too.
If this sounds very depressing, that is because it is. Nobody wants their sense of self worth to take a beating. It is one of the worst feelings in the world. The objective here is not to belittle who we are or what we have achieved. Instead, the crux of this aspect of the human condition is to be brave enough to ask ourselves a very tough question:
“What have I done in my life that anyone else in my position with similar upbringing and influences would not have done?”
Another way to frame it would be:
“What have I done in my life that is beyond my basic duties as an employee/student, husband, son, father, friend, etc?”
“What have I created in this life that nobody else in my position as an employee/student, family man, friend, etc. would have?”
If you are struggling to find answers to these questions, then you – like most of the earth’s population – are replaceable. You could be leading the life of any one of a million other people just like you – and any one of the million other people just like you would have done pretty much the same things as you have in your life. They would offer the same things as you do. And so, you are replaceable by any one of them.
Questioning your own sense of self worth is easily one of the hardest things to do – which is why nobody does it. Instead, we all want to feel good about ourselves and think of ourselves as unique and remarkable in our own way. But the truth is that most of us are neither remarkable nor unique.
Because most of us are just REPLACEABLE.
PS: At some point in time in the future, I intend to write about the one exception to this rule: ART.
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
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.
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:
“What would The Dude do?”
And then decide to do absolutely nothing. Because it is always awesome to be The Dude.
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.
Last year I was on vacation in Chicago with my parents. I had spent a good 60 hours with them at a stretch. On the 3rd evening, I reached a point when I just needed some alone time. The sun was just about to set and so I put my parents on one of the awesome double decker buses that would just take them around downtown showing the night view of the city’s skyline. And within 100 seconds of them boarding the bus, I was seated at a bar, drinking Oberon.
Sitting alone there and drinking my beer, I got into a fairly introspective state of mind – having an existential conversation with myself in my head. Continued consumption of alcohol clearly helped sustain it. I must have spent a good two hours there, because by the time I was about to leave I had a good buzz going in my head. I remembered that I had asked my parents to meet me at the Hancock tower by 9. So I closed my tab and the bartender gave me my copy of the receipt and wished me a good evening. I was just about to leave in that buzzing state of mind when all of a sudden I found myself IN THE ZONE. It came calling out of nowhere – like it always does. And I had to answer. The Zone is where my inspiration comes from – for anything and everything – and when I am in it, I need to explore it in full.
At that moment, sitting at that bar in Chicago, what came to me was a set of words and lines. Not too many, but something that I just had to write down immediately, lest I forget it the next minute. So I quickly asked the bartender for a pen and started writing on the first piece of paper I could find – on the back of my copy of the receipt.
And I was able to write down everything that came to me at that moment. And once I knew there was nothing more to write, I felt truly content. I stored that receipt in my wallet and went searching for the Hancock Tower.
Today, I decided to clean out my wallet to see all the hidden treasures it housed. And it was then that I found the receipt still in there – still containing all the words I wrote. And that made me smile – and write this post.
So here it is – the words that came to me at a bar in Chicago last summer.
It is truly phenomenal what contrast can accomplish. Just being subjected to the ideas and circumstances that you so desperately crave for can make you truly see what you don’t have. That’s all it takes. A true acknowledgement of what you don’t have. And you will get into that beautiful introspective state of melancholy. It is so intimate – just the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. It is something you can always count on – the intimacy of helplessness and hopelessness. In a world filled with such uncertainty, when something like this provides an enormous sense of certainty, it is hard not to fall in love with it. Think about it – the intimacy of helplessness and hopelessness. It is just so beautiful!
This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts dealing with society’s incomplete, unfair and misplaced perception of happiness.
The Happiness Industry is everywhere. It exists because we all want to be happy all the time. From the self help books, to the ‘Lead your life’ seminars, to the daily inspirational quotes, to all the websites and blogs giving you their own unique tips, to the religion sponsored salvation guarantees, to the different schools of thought offering that elusive ‘inner peace’, to the innumerable God Men who claim to know the path to enlightenment, to the beauty products that guarantee your confidence, to the prescription pills promising to alleviate your stress, to the never ending advertisements that promise you happiness in exchange for some of your money.
IT IS EVERYWHERE.
It is also completely missing the point.
It starts off with parents telling their kids that everyone should be happy in life. That is then upgraded to be a requirement. Subsequently, it becomes an order. Then there is talk of REAL HAPPINESS and that it comes from within. Materialistic objects are then perceived to be providing only temporary pleasure and are apparently never fully satisfying. Then there is the sudden realization that maybe REAL HAPPINESS lies in religion and God. Then there is an alternative school of thought that promises that elusive ‘inner peace’. How about living in the present? Or how about that really charismatic person who apparently performs miracles and who seems to want to help everybody be happy? He can surely make people happy? Perhaps falling in love is the key to fulfillment. Having children and starting a family is maybe what is missing. That promotion should help things get better. No? Then perhaps go back to religion and God. That is always a safe bet, right?
How hard people try….. All the places they look…. All the things they believe in…..
All searching for HAPPINESS. All the time.
I have only one question: WHY?
The answer to that is not a WHY NOT? The answer to the question ‘Why are people always looking to be happy?’ is that wanting to be happy is simply a consequence of societal and religious expectations. Same as getting an education, getting a job, starting a family, etc. This expectation of being happy is so deeply ingrained in us that it is extremely hard to justify to somebody that being happy should never be considered a necessity. The idea that, as a human being, the objective in life is to be happy is an extremely fundamental and fixed frame of reference. Everything everybody ever sees is through this frame of reference.
A few instances: when we are not feeling good, we are encouraged to talk to people to feel better – nobody says it is OK to feel down; when a friend has lost someone, we tell them everything is going to be OK – nobody reminds them of what a big loss they have just had; when someone is feeling down, we make it our responsibility to make them feel better – we don’t suggest that they try to express it through a form of art; a therapist is always expected to solve other people’s problems so that they feel better; counselling is always encouraged for people to get out of traumatic situations; when we are angry we are told to calm down because being calm makes it easier to be happy – nobody encourages us to listen to heavy metal music in that state of mind.
Ultimately, every state of mind that is not directly linked to being ‘happy’ is always judged to be something inferior – and people are expected to rise above it, whatever it takes. If we are unable to rise above it, we are then considered weak. If we are not considered weak, we are shown a lot of sympathy and/or pity. Being treated with sympathy or being considered weak – fact is that both these are still going to consider us to be inferior and as somebody who needs help. Note that both society and religion has already decided that every individual personally desires to be happy all the time. If there is an exception, then, well, there is apparently something wrong with that person. Right?
And this is where I have a problem. I realize everyone likes being happy – if happy things happened to them. I only question the deeply ingrained dogma of a society to judge a person who is not ‘happy’ as someone inferior to the rest. I also question the even more fundamental idea that everyone in this world should actively strive for happiness all the time and that everything else is a bad idea.
Being a human being is not just about being happy. We have evolved to be able to experience an unbelievable spectrum of emotions. Happiness is only one small part of it. Being happy makes you experience a certain specific sensation or feeling. If the sum total of all the feelings that we have experienced in our life is restricted to this one specific feeling, then can we even claim to have fully lived like a human being?
Happiness is good. But this should never imply the converse – that anything apart from happiness is miserable and unacceptable. And it should never make it acceptable for the society to simply demand and expect people to be happy all the time and consider them inferior if they are not. And so I personally reject all schools of thought that make happiness/salvation/enlightenment as the fundamental objective of a human being during his or her lifetime.
Come to think of it, if everyone from the beginning of time was happy all the time, how do you think our history would read? It would perhaps comprise of one sentence: “And then Mankind lived happily ever after”. That would be such a boring and one dimensional history and I would not want to be any part of it – even if it had made me happy.
In the next post, I will explore the role of ART in explaining why the societal and religious perception of happiness is incomplete and completely misplaced.
I follow one principle when buying vinyl records:
Never order online.
There is no romance to it. The real excitement lies in digging through hundreds of used and new records in record stores and finding that one awesome album that you never expected to find. Every time that happens, I feel like a kid in candy land.
However, after over 2 years of unsuccessful search across the country to locate this particular album, I had to give up on my coveted principle and order it online.
The one that made me compromise: The Man Machine by Kraftwerk.
I just received this record in my mail and I headed straight to frame the album cover on my wall. Then I headed to my record player and started the record spinning. And then those sounds – possibly straight out of a Stanley Kubrick movie – a prolonged bling, then another and another, and then…..
We’re charging our battery
And now we’re full of energy
We are the robots
As far as I am concerned, The Man Machine easily has the best album cover ever made. A minimalist photograph of 4 expressionless German dudes in blood red shirts with black ties and faces as pale as they had seen a ghost – or maybe they ARE the ghosts – standing one behind the other and staring sideways at something that appears to be commanding all their attention, respect and admiration. The inner sleeve contains more haunting photographs of what appears to be wax models of the 4 men playing instruments and posing for photographs. Try coming up with something more awe inspiring and profound than that and you will make your mark in history.
There is something otherworldly about this album art. Holding it in your hand while listening to the music makes you feel like you are holding a product – a creation – from a world far far away in both space and time. While this music is definitely not from the present, it definitely makes you wonder if this music is from the future or from some mysterious time in the past when 4 strange looking men envisioned how music in the future would be.
To me, the reason this album holds special significance is because I was exposed to it when I was a kid. Of all the people, my dad had brought this album home on cassette. Till today he does not remember how or why he got hold of it. He has not heard to any other Krafwerk’s albums and he does not even recollect the exact name of the band. But when I asked him a month ago here in America, he distinctly recollected owning and listening to the album (in his own words, it was an album “which showed 4 white faced men staring blankly away from the camera”) when I was a kid of maybe 5-6 years old. For reasons I do not recollect or comprehend, I did not play that tape a couple of years after I first listened to it and had never listened to any of that album since then – even by accident.
As a 5-6 year old kid, The Man Machine had captivated me to no end. I remember playing it on a loop for hours together. It transported me to another world – a world in my own imagination filled with space ships in which 4 strange expressionless men in red shirts captivated thousands of people with their hypnotic music. It filled up my imagination with the same intensity as comic books or sci-fi cartoons.
It is hard to describe the sudden and intense rush of memories from the past that comes about when I listen to a particular song or album – something that was strongly associated with that particular time or person. It is stronger than nostalgia. The Man Machine took me back to a time when the biggest worry in my life was to do my homework, eat my vegetables and polish my shoes. It reminded me of squatting in front of a Phillips 2 speaker system, putting in the cassette, rewinding it all the way, hitting play and then just staring at it in eager anticipation for that hypnotic bling to take me to a spaceship far far away. And it never failed to do so.
And then today, almost 20 years after I had last listened to that album, when the needle of my record player landed on the brand new vinyl, I was back on that spaceship. I was back on that spaceship and I did not get back to Earth for more than 2 hours.
There are a few people and things on this planet who/which can make me smile and laugh and feel happy in an instant – just to have known or experienced them or to be able to experience them again. The right music can definitely achieve that for me.
The Man Machine by Kraftwerk had me smiling and laughing and dancing in a spaceship like I had not done in almost 20 years.
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.
In the past few months, I have gone through states of mind that I was initially apprehensive to acknowledge. Admittedly, I felt ashamed to think about it and expected ridicule, condemnation and judgment if I spoke about it. Why? Because that is the way I was brought up. And that is still the way society expects me to be. Society wants me to be happy. Nobody wants me to be sad or depressed. Come to think of it, it is not that everybody wants me to be happy. It is that everybody requires me to be happy.
Anger was one of the earliest responses to my depressed state of mind. Anger not only at the endless snowfall this winter, but more at myself for allowing my mind to get depressed. It really was a matter of ego and pride that I simply continued to refuse and deny the sadness that was consuming me. But why? Why did my pride feel hurt just by me becoming sad? Why did it even become an issue for my ego? The problem was not with my ego or my pride. The problem was what was deemed unacceptable and frowned upon and how I was brought up with those values.
You see, the way I grew up, there was just no room for being sad. Except for an event involving the passing away of someone close, there was never a set of circumstances leading to sadness that could be justified or tolerated. The objective always was to be happy in life. There were always instructions to be happy – by people at home, at school, in the books you read, in the ads that you saw and in the movies you were told to watch. Sadness was never tolerated as a normal state of mind. If you were sad, you just had to put in extra effort and do things that made you happy. Or worse, just stop feeling sad – just like that! Simply put, there was always immense pressure to appear to be happy when you were sad. And if anything, that only made matters worse – starting a vicious loop in the process.
But it got worse. The line that was drawn between being sad and being happy also doubled up as the line between being a failure and being a success. Success and happiness were deemed to feed off of each other in a never ending loop. So was failure and sadness. If you were not happy, you were a failure. Or put it the other way around, you were considered successful only if you were happy. Nobody ever told me, “It’s OK to not be happy all the time.” I wish someone had. Because then I would not have spent so much time growing up feeling like a failure.
You see, just the way success and happiness were deemed to be in a reinforcing ‘positive’ loop, the feeling of apparent failure and sadness were also on a reinforcing loop – albeit a ‘negative’ one, so to speak. And once you get stuck in it, there is no way to come out of it unless someone tells you that it is OK not to be happy all the time.
Truly, there are very few things that can match the profundity of the realization that follows that event – the event when you are told that it is OK to be sad. Till today, nobody has actually told me that. I just decided that was the case. And once I did that, it was the most beautiful and fulfilling feeling ever. It relieved me of so much stress and lifted the massive burden of expectations off my shoulders. Suddenly, there were no obligations that I had to fulfill. I was truly a free man.
Come to think of it, society has made us believe that we have an obligation to feel happy ALL the time. Trying to be happy ALL the time is easily the most exhausting thing mankind has ever conjured up in its entire existence. And the fact that this has been successfully perpetrated through hundreds of generations does not make it easy for anyone to live against this norm.
I see it everyday around me – people making a sincere and inevitable effort to not only tell the world that they are having an amazingly happy time, but to also desperately seek their approval for it. None more evident than on the phenomenon that is Facebook.
If I take Facebook for its word, it means that my friends are always travelling, getting married, having kids, partying with friends, hanging out with buddies or families, in fulfilling relationships, showing off their new acquisitions, cheering for their favorite sports team, coming up with witty or quirky sayings, sharing apparently profound sayings or just being extremely happy and successful ALL the time.
As much as I wish for everyone to be in whatever state of mind they prefer, I cannot help but feel a sense of desperation at play in all those posts and photographs seeking approval and validation for their current states of existence and for what they are able to portray for their life. I suppose mankind has always been that way. With the advent of Facebook, the platform to do that just got a whole lot more convenient and easy. I would be lying if I said that I have not done the same myself. I know how I was when I did that back then. It was also the same time when I used to envy all the happy posts that my friends put up and the approvals they received. I look at that whole experience as a necessary step to take to get to where I am now.
Ultimately, there are just so few instances in life when one feels truly happy. All the other times, it is just an end product of rationalization, denial or pretense. On the other hand, sadness is always genuine – simply because nobody wants to be sad.
But really, why does sadness have to be a taboo? Why can’t it just be another state of mind that completes the experience of human emotion? Why should anyone feel obligated to be in one state of mind or another? Why can’t someone be accepted for who they are even if they are drawn to sadness? Why can’t people be encouraged to generate more art when they are sad? If I am feeling sad, why do people have to sympathize with me? Why can’t it just be a fact? Why should anyone have to deal with their sadness? Why should anyone be judged as a success or a failure based on their state of mind? Why does anyone have to feel sorry for someone else’s loss? What does it even mean to feel sorry for someone else’s loss? Why aren’t we encouraged to read sad and melancholic stories when we are kids? Why do all self help books have to tell us the way to be happy? Why can’t they tell us that it is OK to be sad and tell us how to enjoy its beauty? Why don’t people realize that the most beautiful works of art were created by people who led really sad lives? Why can’t people be encouraged to explore the depths of sadness in addition to the heights of happiness?
When will sadness receive its due approval?
I frequently speak about the experience of being ‘taken to another place’ during so many of the concerts I have been to. That is because that is exactly what happens at these shows – more so considering they mean so much to me. This experience of being ‘taken to another place’ usually occurs during a particular song or a set of songs which may or may not have been the ones I was looking forward to. Sometimes it can be gradual, with me becoming aware of it only towards the later stages.
Last night was an exception. I was in a different place right from the beginning and all the way till the end. It was inevitable. Especially when the band is Sigur Ros and the show opens with Ny Batteri and closes with Popplagio.
I have always maintained that concerts cannot be truly reviewed. They need to be experienced. There are no exceptions and irrespective of your taste in music, the experience is always going to be more revealing than reading the most detailed of reviews. But if there is one thing I really wish I could accurately describe from last night’s Sigur Ros concert at the Starlight theater, it would have to be Jonsi Birgisson’s voice.
There is a certain other worldly feel to the Sigur Ros sound and much of that has to do with his vocals. The sadness in his voice is what gives it that other worldly feel. (Yes this means that I am not a fan of their ‘happy’ sounding songs such as Hoppipolla or Festival) Any Sigur Ros fan will attest to the sadness in the songs. But it is only when you hear that sadness in his voice Live that you truly begin to appreciate the depths of the band’s sound.
That sadness and melancholy I experienced last night – amplified by the starlit sky, the cold spring evening and the Live sound – was just so beautiful I did not want it to end. There have been times when I have listened to Ny Batteri in a depressed state of mind and actually cried in response. It is one of the saddest songs I have personally heard. So when Jonsi Birgisson practically opened the show with it, that haunting bass line and the sadness made me think.
It made me think how sad must someone be to be able to sing that song with that much emotional intensity, and mean it?
The rest of the concert was an exploration – seeking that state of mind which answered my question. My exploration was encouraged, aided and ultimately validated by the most beautiful sadness I have ever heard in my life. I think it was during Varud that I truly stopped resisting my descent into the dark depths of the answer I sought. The chilling climax to that song was finally brought to an end with the female backing vocalists taking over the outro chorus – and adding a new voice to the gloom in the process. The darkness encompassing Saeglopur and E-Bow showed me the path further forward (or down) to that answer. It appeared that the more I began to descend, the more I feared that the answer may be lying that much deeper.
Festival and Hoppipolla served as nothing more than temporary interruptions to my gradual but steady descent. Clearly the rest of the crowd were not on the same path as I was – especially considering how they cheered on for those ‘happy’ songs.
Meanwhile, I found that the more I closed my eyes and just let the voice speak to me, the faster I descended to my elusive answer. And so I just closed my eyes during Glosoli. And then the band started playing Popplagio – a long drawn out rendition that may not be the most depressing song on their catalog. But it was definitely the song that builds up to the most tumultuous climax one can imagine – a crescendo to the unknown. His searing vocals rising with every bar and taking me up with it. I was not sure where it was taking me but I went along anyway. The crescendo kept building up and up to dizzying levels of anticipation and wonder. And when it hit the zenith, it was the most intense, mind numbing, revealing and ultimately fulfilling experience I have had in the longest time.
Because you see, I had an epiphany when the crescendo peaked. The music and the sadness spoke to me then and it said: “It is OK not to be happy all the time. There is a certain joy in experiencing sadness too.” And that meant so much to me. It was like the most satisfying answer anyone had ever given me. I do not know if I found the answer I was looking for. But I definitely found the answer I needed to know.
This is why I crave to go to a lot of concerts. At home, they are just songs on an album. At a concert, they can be your journey to the unknown. Sigur Ros will always be remembered for taking me on the most fulfilling journey ever. The band members must be truly depressed individuals – and I hope they stay that way.