Category Archives: The things that happen only to ME…

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 3/3)

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. See my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) (The Food Part 1) (The Food Part 2) for more.

Indian Food in NYC

I suppose in the end, it all came down to the Indian food for me. Very early on, it became painfully obvious that I was going to be spoilt for choice in every conceivable aspect. So, at this point, I am just going to go ahead and list the places I frequented the most and/or the ones I just want to give a special shout out to:

  • Spice Grill: God knows how many times I ordered from this restaurant for delivery. Yes, the mega-awesome ‘Delivery!’ guy from my previous post was delivering food from Spice Grill. I just could not get enough of their vegetable/paneer base and the very satisfying amount of food they packed into their ‘Lunch Box’ order. I pretty much had the same exact order every day for several weeks. Very prompt delivery (duh!) and great tasting food. The irony here, of course, is that I never actually visited their restaurant in person during all my time there! And I suppose I still owe them a good review on Yelp.
  • Vatan: If you have about $35 to spend on the best vegetarian meal, then really consider your decision already made. This is not just food. This place is a divine experience in itself. Devanshi and I went there multiple times with increasingly satisfying meals (and took our friends along with us). This is an all-you-can-eat place where the waitresses serve you at your table. The menu is primarily Gujarati food, but really, it doesn’t matter what label you give it. This is vegetarian food in all its glory and appeal!
  • Desi Deli: A Punjabi dhaba in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan that is open – get this – 24/7! With a limited menu serving both vegetarian and non-veg dishes, it pretty much gives you enough finger-licking food to more than fill your stomach. (Think Quality of food > Quantity of options). This place was a 15 minute M50 Crosstown bus ride away from my apartment. And anytime we found ourselves on the west side of Manhattan, there was really only one place in our minds for food. I will always remember that one time when I randomly woke up hungry at 3 AM, took the crosstown M50 to 10th Ave, ate a hearty meal, took the same bus back to my apartment, and went back to a blissful sleep! There should definitely be a Desi Deli in every city. No exceptions.
  • Adiyar Bhavan: This place probably served the widest options of South Indian food, and is best enjoyed in the restaurant. I learnt the hard way that having these food items delivered really brought down their taste and texture, making for an underwhelming experience. But eating the same food there, it was obvious that it was the best South Indian food place in Manhattan. I particularly have high praise for their Rava dosas and the sambhar that is served with it.

Shout Outs:

  • All the Jackson Heights restaurants in Queens: I only visited Jackson heights about 4-5 times and tried a new place every single time. I recollect having some memorable chats at Raja Sweets and Fast Food. Perhaps if I had spent a lot more time in that neighborhood, I would have found a place that I would have frequented often, but my visits there were limited.
  • Mumbai Express and Usha Foods: Great chat places in Floral Park in Queens. Usha Foods also had a whole array of snack items to take home. It was a long ride there, but totally worth doing it on a Saturday or Sunday late morning.
  • Darbar Grill: Ordered a lot of ‘Lunch Boxes’ from here as well (similar to Spice Grill).
  • IndiKitch: The only Indian ‘fast food’ place that had perfected the ‘Chipotle Model’ for Indian cuisine. There are so many ‘fast food’ places that were trying to ape the Chipotle style of menu – rolls, rice bowls, etc – but IndiKitch was the only one that got it spot on. Their menu might be a little difficult to navigate if you are not actually there, but once you get it, you will quickly realize why it works so smoothly.

So there you have it. Everything I found out and explored in NYC that was Indian food. I am sure there are many more there that I didn’t get to, but I guess that is for next time.

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And with that, I have concluded the ‘Food in NYC’ part of my ‘5 Months in NYC’ series. More posts still to come on other aspects of NYC.

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5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 2 of 3)

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. See my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) (The Food Part 1) for more. 

Food trucks are omnipresent in New York City. There are a wide variety of them serving all kinds of cuisine and at all times of the day and night. Being a vegetarian, most of the food trucks (or most of the items on the food trucks) were things I wish I could eat, but wouldn’t. Of the things I could eat, my enjoyment came not just from the quality of the food itself, but from the sheer experience of being able to access the food in such a manner. Perhaps it reminded me of the informal nature of the food industry back home in India, or maybe it was the pleasure of having found some great food in a setting that did not conform to the general expectation of a ‘restaurant’. But there was essentially a raw kind of satisfaction that I derived from eating at food trucks – paying in cash, having limited menu options, cooking in an open air and/or confined space setting, getting my hands dirty with all the food, limited/no silverware, a full stomach, and leaving with a feeling of having somehow found a new ‘joint’ that served great (and cheap) food.

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The NYC Dosa Man

 

Any post on New York City food trucks serving vegetarian food would be incomplete without a shout out to the NYC Dosa man. Easily the best Dosa in town, his food truck is located inside Washington Square park, and he serves a limited number of Dosa options along with some Idli, samosa items. On my third visit to the place in about 2 months, the Dosa man, aka Thiru Kumar, actually recognized me and made a remark on the lesser quantity of food I was purchasing as compared to previous visits! I explained to him that my wife was not with me and hence only 1 serving. He is a very affable character and all the regulars seem to like and appreciate his food and personality. So, yeah, definitely go there if you are in NYC.

Which brings me to the idea of Vegan and vegetarian food in New York City. Devanshi and I found out (the hard way) what Vegan food has mostly come to signify in NYC. Being vegetarians, we were both on the look out for vegan places to explore. One of the ‘highly rated’ places was this restaurant called Wild Ginger in Brooklyn in the Williamsburg area. It was supposed to have some great Vegan food, so we went there. When we received our food, we were in for a rude shock. There was no meat alright. But that was all there was to the ‘Vegan’ part of the food. The food looked like meat, smelt like meat, tasted like meat, and even made us feel like we had eaten meat. In hindsight, the menu should have made it quite clear as to what to expect. Think of a regular Asian restaurant serving all the meat dishes. Now replace all the meat with ‘Soy protein’, ‘tofu’ and ‘seitan’. And you have the Vegan menu at Wild Ginger – and really most of the self-proclaimed Vegan restaurants in NYC.

Replacing meat with meat substitutes and taking a lot of pains to ensure that the final dish resembles the original meat dish in every conceivable way is the general idea of ‘Vegan’ restaurants in New York City. And I personally cannot and will not approve of this idea. However, the bigger realization my wife and I had was that, apart from Indian cuisine, there was really just no other cuisine out there that offered such a massive wide range of original vegetarian food. Yes, you will find vegetarian ‘options’ in many cuisines – notably Greek, Ethiopian and Middle Eastern – but they are just that – options. The primary dishes from these cuisine will always be meat based. And once you come up with the idea of ‘substituting the meat’, you are already out of the conversation on original vegetarian cuisine. Overall, it was a rather disappointing realization for both of us – that mankind through millennia of civilizations somehow never managed to come up with original vegetarian cuisine apart from this one country called India.

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Hangawi Restaurant in Koreatown

But it would be completely remiss of me if I did not make a specific and grateful mention to the very few exceptions we found in NYC. First and foremost, a big big shout out to Hangawi in Koreatown. It is an upscale restaurant that serves – believe it or not – only vegetarian food. And no, these are not meat substitute dishes. These are vegetarian dishes that look like vegetarian food, smell of vegetables and spices, taste like vegetarian food free of any meat influences, and most importantly, made me feel like having eaten a hearty vegetarian meal. Yes, some of the dishes do use Tofu, but I will personally attest to these dishes still not bringing any meat influences to their taste. The place is admittedly on the expensive side. But you also feel like you are dining at an expensive place once you start eating. So, yes, if you are looking for a nice date night that makes and serves vegetarian food the way it should be, this would definitely be the first place to check out.

I will mention two other places. One of them is Beyond Sushi – a vegan place that serves plant based food in the sushi form. Having been a regular consumer of sushi till not too long ago, I was particularly impressed with how plant products prepared to taste like a vegetarian dish while retaining the general feel of eating a sushi. Relatively inexpensive and strongly recommended.

Another reasonable exception would be By Chloe. We visited that place many times. Particularly like all their Veggie burgers.

And speaking of Vegetarian food, I am going to end this post with another rather comical interchange I had while ordering some food.

I was walking through Chinatown early in the morning on a weekday and passed by a bakery that appeared to have some nice pastry buns. I saw this one pastry that I wanted to try which had some sweetened coconut stuffed in a bun. Unfortunately, it also had a piece of ham in it. So I asked the lady there if they had a pastry without the ham. This is how the (short) conversation went:

Me: Do you have this pastry without meat?

Server: No meat?

Me: Yes, I want this without meat.

Server: No meat?

Me: Yes, no meat.

Server: No meat? OK! Meat take out!

Me: ???

Server: Meat take out! Meat take out!

Me: Oh! You will just take out the ham from that bun?

Server: Yes! Meat take out! Meat take out!

Me: OK. I will have one.

She then promptly removed the piece of ham from the pastry and gave the pastry to me! It cost about $1 and tasted great!

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PS: I initially intended this to be a 2 post series on the food. But I guess I am going to have to make this 3 posts now. The last post will be on the Indian food in NYC.

5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 1 of 3)

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. Find my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) here

Easily the one thing that both my wife and I were looking forward to the most during our stay in Manhattan earlier this year was all the food that New York City had to offer. After spending 5 months eating all that we possibly could, I realized that there was so much to write about the food in New York – apart from the food itself! And so this post is not going to be about what dish was best at which place, but more about the whole food industry in general, along with some rather interesting experiences that we encountered on the way.

First up, before anything, I would like to clarify that both my wife and I are vegetarians. So, yes, we were unable to eat probably more than 90% of the food on offer in the city. If you are a meat eater, then you would have a (admittedly valid) case to say that we never actually got to sample the best food there. I won’t argue that. But I will say that my general observations of the food industry and systems in place will still stand. And if anything, my extra attempts to find vegetarian food led me to discover places and things I otherwise would never have found.

Midtown East Restaurants

Restaurants in Midtown East in Manhattan

I will start with the general accessibility and distribution of restaurants and food in general. I lived in the Midtown East (E 50th and 1st Ave) neighborhood in Manhattan, right by the United Nations building. There were quite a few restaurants within a one block radius – including Thai, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and American. And if you traveled about 2-3 blocks, you would find pretty much every cuisine. The nearest ‘proper’ Indian restaurant (that I liked visiting) was Adiyar Bhavan on 1st Ave and E 60th St – which was still a reasonable walking distance (or one short bus ride) from where I lived. (There were others within 2-3 blocks but I didn’t like them). And, from my general exploration of all of Manhattan, this was pretty much the case everywhere. That is to say, you could find a restaurant from any cuisine within about 3-4 blocks of where you lived. Just let that sink in. Pretty much any cuisine you want within 3-4 blocks of where you live – yes this is what you get in Manhattan! Of course there are small geographical pockets of specific cuisines that you will see all over – from Little Italy to China Town to Lexington Ave/24th St where a lot of the Indian restaurants are.

As far as Queens goes, I generally found that the food establishments were focused in some specific areas with a slight suburban feel in the rest of the area. So if you wanted something specific, you would still get it, but you would have to travel to that specific place. And Queens being the large geographical size that it is, it could take you a while to travel to, say, Flushing to eat some Asian food, or to Jackson Heights to get the best Indian food.

Brooklyn was about the same, except I cannot say I got to explore it as much as I would have liked to. And I never visited much in The Bronx and Staten Island.

So far I have written about the ‘distribution’ of the restaurants. But one thing I quickly learnt was that distribution meant nothing. What was more important was the accessibility to the food, regardless of where the restaurant was. That is to say that if you wanted food from a certain restaurant, which was more than just a 3-4 block walking distance, you should still be able to get it without making the journey there. Yes, I am talking here about the food delivery industry here.

The food delivery ecosystem in Manhattan fascinated me to no end during my stay there. It was the first time I saw people delivering food on bicycles – which, if you think about, really is the only obvious choice in a city like NYC. It probably employs hundreds of part time (and maybe some full time) food delivery bikers to bridge the gap in access between the customer and the restaurant. Services such as Grubhub, Yelp, Uber Eats, etc further help customers gain access to these restaurants through a one-stop app/website. It is not that there are no food delivery places where I live in Des Moines, IA (though it is largely restricted to Pizza, Chinese and Thai restaurants). But it was in NYC that I first saw how this whole ecosystem of food delivery worked like a well oiled machine round the clock – 24 hours a day!

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Barring any inclement weather, these bikers work all the time – rain, heat, snow, etc. Typically, there is about a 30 minute to 1 hour wait from the time you order to the food being delivered, which is really reasonable if you think about it. The delivery ‘radius’ is usually about 1 to 2 miles – which considering the density of the restaurants, is mostly not going to matter much. Most of the restaurants did not charge any delivery fee (but did specify a minimum order) and no “separate” tip was expected from the biker. Most of these bikers that I personally met were immigrants who did not speak much English, just knocked on your door and delivered the food before heading to their next destination. Many were also students at NYU or CUNY. (Read this piece for a full picture of the delivery folk in Manhattan).

Which brings me to probably the most comical conversation I had in NYC.

I had developed a sort of a routine where, after finishing my field work at around 3 pm, I would order my lunch for delivery from an Indian restaurant on my Yelp app – just as I left my work site (at Ave C and E 14th St). It typically took me about 20 to 30 minutes to reach my apartment. The food would generally arrive a few minutes after I arrived, so I would already be there to take the delivery.

But inevitably, there would be times when my bus would get delayed and the delivery guy (DG) would reach my apartment before I did. When the Concierge told him that I was out, the delivery guy would call me on my cell. The first time this happened, the following was how the conversation panned out. Remember, this guy doesn’t know much English.

Me: Hello

DG: Delivery!!

Me: Oh hi! Sorry I am not at my apartment yet. Are you already there?

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: OK looks like you are at my apartment building. Please leave it at the Concierge and I will pick it up later.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, please leave it at the lobby or front desk. I will pick it up.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, leave it at the lobby!

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby???

Me: Yes. Lobby! Lobby!

DG: OK!

(Hangs up).

When I reached my apartment, the Concierge promptly handed me the delivery package!

I am not exaggerating or changing anything here. That is exactly how the first conversation panned out. You have to also realize that I was in the bus surrounded by a whole bunch of people in close proximity while I was yelling “Lobby! Lobby!” into my phone, not sure if the guy at the other end could hear and/or understand what I was saying! Since I ordered from the same restaurant around the same time on most days, I always bumped into the same guy either in person or on the phone regularly. So on all future occasions, when I got a call from this guy while I was still in the bus, the conversation went like this:

Me: Hello?

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby?

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

It was a beautiful thing! An immigrant guy who spoke no English was able to make a satisfactorily work in NYC by talking in English to a customer in a conversation that had successfully condensed itself into two words: “Delivery!” and “Lobby!”. It made me smile every single time! It was these small experiences that gave me brief, but insightful glimpses into the subtle beauty that lies hidden within New York City!

I do have more to share on the topic of food – including the ‘vegetarian/vegan’ options in NYC, thoughts on all the Indian food I could find, and of course more interesting interactions. All this in the next post. Stay tuned!

On Being Married

It has been a little more than a year and a half since I met my wife, and a little more than a year since we got married. All this time, I have been constantly reminded by the wife of the fact that I have not made any mention of her in my blog – direct or implied. And more importantly, how that needs to change. When I asked myself why I hadn’t written anything about her, I realized that I was really waiting for some kind of a narrative to take form in our relationship – a narrative that I could then put in words and provide a context for. And I believe that I do have such a narrative right now, and so here is what I have to say on finding the right person, my decision to get married, and what I found on the other side of the decision.

I met Devanshi in March/April of 2016 when my general state of being was largely captured in this post I wrote back then. We met on a dating app and started chatting first. It was in those first days of chatting that we found out that we were both at the same Steven Wilson concert in Chicago just a few days before. To me, there could not have been a better way we could have been introduced to each other. Steven Wilson is one of the people I admire a lot – not just his music, but also his general thoughts on life and society. Realizing that this girl I had just met shares some (if not all) of my passion for his work and message meant a lot to me.

I wish I could say that our time together from that point onwards till we got married – about 4-5 months later – was just a great honeymoon period (as in any relationship). We did have our fun, make no mistake. There were more music festivals/concerts that we went to, got to know each other’s friends and even happily revealed to our parents that we were dating. But through all of that, her efforts to finish her graduate studies loomed large over most of the time we spent. There was a lot of uncertainty and many sleepless nights – for both of us – during the 2-3 months she was trying to finish her graduate studies.

And THAT pretty much sealed our relationship. For her, I proved to be a reliable and supportive friend who happily helped her with everything I had through some of her toughest times; and for me she proved to be the smart, tough and mentally strong person I had always sought out in a partner. There were times when I thought I would have just given up if I was in her position, only to find her continue to work and find a way to the finish line. Strength of character is a quality I have always admired and after she successfully defended her project, I realized that I had already made the decision in my head about where this relationship was going.

Within a few weeks, we were getting married at the neighborhood coffee shop Smokey Row with a few friends (and family through Skype) and a wedding officiant administering our vows. We then had a small party at the Art gallery of the Social Club to celebrate the wedding.

I am trying to come up with an analogy for this particular point in my life. The only thing that I am reminded of is the time in my life when I had just gained an admission to NITK for my undergraduate studies. This was right after me spending considerable time and effort preparing for the entrance examination, following which I gained admission to the college. In both situations – my wedding and gaining admission to the college – I experienced a feeling of having arrived somewhere. But, more importantly, I also had this stronger realization that the real deal lay just ahead of me. Yes I could always take satisfaction in having arrived at a place I valued, but what I did with my life and situation after that was what mattered from that point on.

We continued to go to as many concerts and music festivals as possible, with some miscellaneous travel sprinkled in between as well. We explored our mutual passion for cooking and board games along with some friends who moved in to our neighborhood. We spent 2 months in Manhattan, taking in a lot of what it had to offer and exploring the city and nearby places. But in trying to find the narrative for my married life, I realized that there just wasn’t a long running aspect that I could point out and say this has what defined my marriage life.

And the primary reason for that was us never getting the chance to stay together for an extended period of time. She visiting India and me having to go out of town for work every now and then has led us to never being able to spend extended periods of time with each other. Over the past 1 year, we have been together for just about half the time, and only for 1-2 months at a stretch. Though we have tried to make the most of our time together, what this has meant is that we have just not been able to setup a routine that could have otherwise defined our married lives. It is hard to quantify what we have missed out due to these constant interruptions to our continued understanding of and bonding with each other. And it may well be that we may never know until we actually begin to spend extended periods of time together.

But if I were to be pressed for one underlying narrative for our time together since our wedding, I would have to point to my wife’s effort to find a job following her graduation. It has been a very arduous process for both of us at so many different levels and over an extended period of time. The consequences of her not having a job manifested itself in many different aspects of our married lives that neither of us could have foreseen. We were putting our efforts to the best of our abilities to find a job, while also dealing with constraints that were beyond our control. Frustration, uncertainty, and a sense of despair took hold of our relationship at times in the process. But in the end, she did find a job – and found one in one of the unlikeliest places we had expected.

My wife started working last week at Garden City in Kansas. I helped her move there a week before, and she has now started her career there. It is a small town of about 30,000 people in SW Kansas and a good 9 hour drive from Des Moines. Interestingly, it is the most diverse city in all of Kansas – with a large Hispanic, Asian and African population!

So what does this mean for our path forward? Yes, for one, it definitely means that we will have to live apart while she pursues her career and I pursue mine. It also means that we have to wait a tad bit longer to discover what it is that we are potentially missing out on by not living together for extended periods of time. But to me, there are a few things that I am looking forward to with us living apart.

I have always believed in the value of people living by themselves for a few years after they start a job. The idea is that this would be the only time in their lives when they would have time, money and freedom to do whatever it is that they wanted (within reasonable constraints of course). I know I happily went through it for several years prior to meeting my wife. But I was always worried that my wife would never be able to get that opportunity – especially if she got a job and we lived together.

So as a silver lining, I am happy that Devanshi will get a chance to live by herself, forge her own routines, explore her own interests, and develop her own hobbies. As someone who did all that myself, I value that same experience in others – and especially in someone who is my wife. And so, in a way, I am looking forward to some things that living apart will bring us.

When I graduated from my Masters program and secured a job here in the US, I wrote an email to one of my Professors from undergrad letting him know about my progress. In that I had told him about how I went through some really tough and uncertain times and was able to get through all of that and secure a good paying job. He congratulated me on my degree and job, and he told me something that somehow put everything I had been through at that time into the right perspective. He said, “Life conducts the examination first, and then teaches a lesson.”

I have been thinking about what he said of late. My situation may not be perfectly analogous to what he said. But it does fit neatly into some form of a corollary. My wife and I went through the hard and uncertain times upfront in our marriage, and instead of it potentially weakening our bond, it has in fact strengthened our resolve to see these times through. So when we eventually do get to the point of living the married lifestyle that we have always wanted, our experience is going to be that much more rewarding. And so I firmly believe that if this is our examination, then we are going to reap some hefty rewards once it is done.

But all said and done, I do realize that this is just the beginning of our married lives, and that there will be many more chapters to look forward to. And rest assured, there will be many more posts here to capture it all.

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I had promised my wife that I would write about her soon. And after she reads this post, I would be fairly certain that she will admonish me for revealing so much! I suppose this is also part of the examination!

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.

diversity

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.

 

 

Current Status of the 2012 NFL WR Drafts: A Statistical Analysis

The NFL Draft of 2017 just completed today and every team and their fans are excited about all their recruits. All this is completely understandable given the overall hype and significance of the event. After all, this is where it all begins for the future NFL stars – right?

The survivorship bias in the sporting community is extremely pronounced and is present worldwide in all sports. That is, everybody talks about all those who make it big, with very minimal attention given to those who didn’t make it at all. With respect to the NFL Draft, this meant everybody was talking about who would become the next star quarterback or who will become the next Ezekiel-Elliot-inspired star Rookie Running Back. Or perhaps, which late round draft pick or the free agent would be the surprise success story. But I wasn’t interested in any of that.

What I was interested in was not who would make it big, but who would not make it at all? How many players would never see their names listed on Active Roster? How many players would be out of the picture within 2-3 years if not sooner? And what would happen to them?

To answer that, I decided to look into a small sample of a draft class from the past. Specifically, I chose the 2012 Draft class for Wide Receivers and see how they all panned out – each and every one of the 33 who were drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft. Which round did they get drafted? How many years – if at all – did they play? Are they still active?

What I found was partly expected but very revealing at the same time. And it is also clearly something that is generally ignored by the sporting community. I evaluated the following general parameters for this task:

  1. Current Status of players – Active, Retired, Free Agent, Non NFL Football
  2. No. of Years on Active Roster
  3. Correlation with which round the player was drafted

Based on these parameters, I went through the bios and stats of all the 33 players who were drafted in that WR position in 2012. Here are the charts:

Current Status of 2012 WR Drafts

2012 WR Current Status

As you can see above, only 30% of the original draft picks are currently still active and are scheduled to play in the 2017 season. About 20% are currently plying their football trade in the Canadian Football League or the Indoor Football League.

Distribution of Active Roster Years

2012 WR Active Roster Year Distribution

2012 WR Active Roster Year Distribution - Pie

There may be 10 players out of the 33 who have played all 5 years since being drafted, but this also means there are 23 other players who are no longer active and whose NFL football careers lasted less than 4 years, with 6 of them never seeing the football field.

Correlation of Current Active Status with Drafting Round

Active Status vs Drafting Round

Active Status vs Drafting Round - percent

These two are my favorite charts. This tells me that which round the player was drafted appears to have some correlation with the player being currently on an active NFL roster – with those drafted higher having a higher percentage of staying active longer. This is a general positive correlation with the perceived skill level of the corresponding player at the time of the draft. Of course this is not a perfect correlation as we see that the 1st round picks have a lesser fraction of them still active as compared to the 3rd (or even the 5th) round picks.

It has to be noted that the issues of injury and NFL code violations (mostly drug abuse or DUI) are the unknowns in this analyses and cannot be quantified or predicted. It is also not possible to determine how a player would have panned out if he was not injured or did not commit those violations. (Case in point, the #1 WR pick of 2012 Justin Blackmon was suspended from the NFL after 2 incidents of drug abuse violations). But historical data can provide teams with some information that can be used to predict what fraction of players typically become inactive due to injury or NFL code violations.

But returning to my original point about all the players who will NOT make it in the NFL, I have some kind of an answer with this small sample size. About 70% of the recruits do not make it, with about 20% continuing their career in the Canadian Football League or the Indoor Football League.

Going further, I would like to do this same analyses for various draft classes, breaking up the data by drafting round, position, year of draft, etc. This can give some very valuable information for teams and fans to use while actively avoiding the survivorship bias. So what does this mean for the NFL Draft of 2017? Well, if the results from this small sample size were to hold, then expect only 1 to 3 players from each team’s recruits to actually pan out a proper career.

Now that should get some people talking!

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On a related note, the HBO Show BALLERS is highly recommended for those wanting to see what happens to football players after their retirement. What do they do with their lives? How do they cope with the sudden change of lifestyle? What regrets haunt them from the past? Dwayne Johnson has excellently portrayed the character of a retired NFL RB who is trying to make it in the post-football era of his life. This is not a show which has the ‘party’ or the ‘high-end society’ lifestyle as its primary focus. This is a show that instead truly focuses on the off-season troubles faced by the folks who run the show from behind the scenes – including the ones who are now out of work. Highly recommended!

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Raw data can be found here: 2012 WR NFL Status

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discovering American Football

Among my initial impressions of American culture and lifestyle, what really caught my eye were the isolationist tendencies that this country has consciously and sub-consciously adopted over the course of the past 2 centuries. (The validity of the ‘why’ is not relevant to this discussion). And more specifically, how these isolationist policies had manifested themselves in the day to day workings of the society. And of all the different aspects of American culture that exhibit this isolationist propensity, perhaps the most visible, glaring and sometimes obvious one is sports.

American sports (apart from Olympic events) are mostly just that – sports played in America. American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice hockey are sports where the biggest sporting events include teams from within North America playing each other to be crowned ‘World Champions’. (Sure there are instances of international participation – notably for Basketball, and also for Baseball in Latin America and Japan). But for an outsider looking in – like an immigrant such as myself – the universal, unquestioned acceptance of such a largely self-contained system among its people seems to display a certain sense of ignorance, apathy and maybe even some arrogance over other sports that are a lot more popular in the rest of the world. And THIS can and does work towards discouraging people unfamiliar with the sports to explore it.

Additionally, for an immigrant coming in to this country well beyond his/her formative years, it can seem to be a rather daunting, and sometimes even pointless, task to explore the sports. My own initial thoughts went along these lines: “I have no association with these sports. I never grew up with them. I have no reason to be interested in them now. So I will still continue to just watch cricket, soccer and tennis.” And this was (and in many cases, still is) echoed among most of my fellow Indian friends. It would have been that much easier to simply keep my status quo and not make an effort into exploring the product of a seemingly isolationist thinking.

But it is only when one looks beyond this apparent barrier of sports apathy and isolationism does one discover a whole new universe of sporting culture this country has to offer. And so I decided to take the plunge to see what’s out there – at least as far as American Football is concerned.

High angle of fans in Lane Stadium football

Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech

Doing my Master’s in a university with a big football tradition such as Virginia Tech inevitably exposed me to a lot of buzz around the game and the team. An American classmate of mine volunteered to feed my curiosity by watching the VT vs Nebraska (2009) game with me and explaining all the rules and objectives. VT won that game – a rather low scoring encounter with a memorable finish. And I got hooked on to the sport. I watched most of the VT games and even managed to follow some of the other ACC/BCS games that season. I even recollect going to my friend’s super bowl party that winter.

My initial efforts to watch and understand the game may have been borne out of a desire to socialize and make new friends. But over time, the sport itself grew on me – to the extent that I started to watch even non-VT games whenever they were on. So in my third semester (and second football season), I decided to watch a few games at Lane Stadium – home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. That was also the first time I learnt about the tradition of tailgating.

I just couldn’t believe it! I had never seen anything like it before. People drank alcohol for hours before the game, during the game, and for hours after the game! Lane Stadium ended up being a spot where 67,000 drunk college kids cheered on a bunch of other college kids playing football! Wow! It was just incredible! And I definitely wanted more! So I ended up going to 3-4 more games at the Lane Stadium, the most memorable of which being the 28-21 win over Georgia Tech on a Thursday night.

In the end, maybe it was being around a lot of people who all cheered for the same team, maybe it was that I was looking to socialize and make new friends, or maybe it is because I am a big sports guy by nature and American football was a sport that I came to like, or maybe it was a combination of all of them. But whatever may have been the contributing factor, by the time I graduated in December 2010, I was no longer looking at American football as an outsider. I was a fan of the sport and I had a team to root for.

Over the last 6 years since my graduation, I have become even more knowledgeable about the game – not so much its history, as about the tactics, strategy and the team itself. I have a big group of American friends who are passionate about the game, and I feed off their passion and get increasingly more involved in the game over the season. Though the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences in the Midwest have little to do with VT and the ACC, I nevertheless have watched most of the VT games and a bunch of other ACC and other conference games. I have always watched the BCS bowls/playoffs even though there was no team in there to cheer for personally.

I have come to realize that to grow an interest in any new sport, one need 3 things: a general liking to the sport itself, a team to root for, and friends to watch the games with (preferably rooting for the same team). I have been fortunate to have all of them and so I now find myself cursing, clapping, shouting, jumping around and being my usual animated self whenever I am watching a VT game. I follow fan blogs that discuss each game, the team, recruiting and all associated gossip and rumors –  all clear indications that I have something personally invested in the outcome of the games every weekend!

And speaking of having something personally invested in a team, I have also realized that I have a direct affiliation to the Virginia Tech football team. I went to school there and so there is a very valid reason to root for them. Which made me then question my affiliation to all the soccer teams that I have passionately supported for well over a decade now – Chelsea and Juventus. I suppose we don’t need a reason to choose a sports team to root for, but technically speaking, I have a more valid affiliation to VT football than to Chelsea or Juventus! (I know! This is sacrilege!) But I choose not to break my head about that.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is the absence of anything NFL in my encounters with American football. I do watch the games at the bar or at my friends’ place when they are on. I will even appreciate a close/good game regardless of who is playing. But the absence of having a team to root for has pretty much held me back from following it as closely as I do for college football. Many of my friends are either fans of the Broncos or the Packers, so whenever I am watching a game with them, I end up cheering with them. I do have some affinity towards the Broncos, so if I were to really pick a team, I would probably go with them. But until I truly commit to an NFL team and start rooting for it, I probably wouldn’t feel the same way about it as I do with college football.

At the end of the day, I find that I have spent many weekends watching American football with my friends to great satisfaction – bonding, cheering and even having opinions of my own about how the teams should have played. These experiences have proved to be a very fruitful, having served as an easy avenue to assimilate into the American lifestyle and to have a larger sense of belonging in a  new society and culture that is half way around the world from where I grew up. I have benefited greatly from this experience and I definitely intend to keep exploring this further.

 

 

 

 

Stop Drinking. Start Juicing.

It has been about 4 months since I gave up drinking alcohol. 10 years of regular (and mostly moderate) alcohol consumption came to a rather indifferent end earlier this year. Whenever I mention this to people, the first thing I am usually asked is,”Did you get a DUI?!?” And when I respond that no, I have not been arrested for drunk driving, they are typically unsure why else I would have stopped drinking alcohol.

Fact is I simply lost interest. Yes, there was some motivation behind it in terms of bad cholesterol/LDL numbers. But in the end, that was nothing more than the equivalent of an excuse to bring in the change. And when I actually made the decision, it didn’t even seem like I was doing something monumental. I felt the same as when I decided to get off social media a month earlier. It was more of a “Whatever….it doesn’t seem to matter anyway” feeling than an actual ‘decision’. And it has continued to feel that way till today.

I perhaps should not make the statement that I have ‘given up alcohol’. That would imply that I would never drink alcohol ever again. And I know that is something that would be untrue. If I am meeting a good friend after a long time, or if there is a very special occasion, or even if my dad offers me some good Scotch, I am not going to take some kind of a moral or health-based high ground and refuse to join them.

Going on some kind of a dry streak doesn’t mean or do much to me either. It is not that I am afraid I will simply lapse back into my drinking habits if I were to get a beer tonight. I just don’t feel the temptation in the first place. In fact, I still go to my neighborhood bar 2-3 times a week to say hi to my friends; I just don’t drink any alcohol there. So even though I will always appreciate the taste of a good Scotch whisky, I don’t think I would have more than a drink or two in a year. Therefore, I think I would rather make the statement that ‘I have lost interest in alcohol’ instead of ‘I have given up alcohol’.

Losing interest in alcohol provided me with a number of side benefits including having a lot more time on my hands (perhaps because of which I am able to write this post tonight!). And so I started looking for something to do with all the time on my hands. It so happened that around about the same time, a friend of mine suggested that I explore the idea of juicing as a regular activity. I had only known about juicing in passing. So I did some research and found that it was a rather convenient and potentially tasty way to get a whole bunch of nutrients into my body, and, within a few days, had bought the most popular juicer on Amazon.

Then, to find good juice recipes, I went on to the (extremely creatively named) website JuiceRecipes.com. There I found a large database of not just recipes, but also information and general tips on the act of juicing, including some useful warnings on what not to do. I liked the structure of their website and have stuck with it since then for all my juicing needs.

And then I started juicing.

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The Wingman – my personal favorite

Wow. Turns out, juicing is fun! I thoroughly enjoy the act of juicing. And I am not just talking about the part where I drink it. I enjoy the whole experience – deciding on a recipe, preparing the fruit/vegetables, running them through the juicer, and even cleaning the entire apparatus! It is only after I have cleaned it all do I drink the juice. I feel so good when I juice that it has become some kind of a Zen activity; all my focus and energy is on the juicing and I am totally living in the moment! So I never juice in a hurry and always do it as a separate activity that needs its own time. Overall, it takes me about half an hour to decide on a recipe, prepare the ingredients, run it through the juicer, clean the juicer and the waste, and drink the juice. And I look forward to it every day after work.

I am not even going to make an effort to list the health benefits here, because it is the most obvious aspect of juicing. But what I will definitely point out is that juicing has given me something else to drink in place of alcohol. Yes, I would have probably continued to not drink alcohol in any case. But having a big glass of juice to keep sipping on while playing poker or throwing bags with friends who are drinking beer always makes the job so much easier.

So for anyone out there who is trying to quit/reduce drinking, wants to develop some kind of a healthy dietary habit, is looking for a convenient way to get great nutrition in their body or just wants to do something constructive in their free time, really just STOP DRINKING AND START JUICING!

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PS: I use the Breville JE98XL Juice Fountain Plus 850-Watt  for all my juicing. I am thoroughly satisfied with the product and have high praise for the general design and the ease with which it can be cleaned.

2015 Concerts in Review: Part 3

It has finally happened. I have written a Part 3 to something! This in itself is cause for celebration. But I digress. Here is a quick summary of the bands I saw at 8035 Music Festival and Hinterland Music Festival in 2015. Two good festivals, but I have to admit I liked Hinterland that much more. So here goes:

17. Wilco at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: I remember buying a CD of Wilco’s ‘A Ghost is Born’ from the local record store about 4 years ago. To this day, I believe that is his best album. I love ‘Summerteeth’ and I strongly believe that ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ is overrated. He is as good as a songwriter and singer as he is a bad lyricist. But my ratings of his albums and his ability to write good lyrics had absolutely no bearing when I saw him play a few blocks from my apartment at the 8035 music festival. For some reason, I had believed that 8035 would be a perfect place for him to play, and that pretty much just happened. I unfortunately do not remember much from the show as I was sufficiently inebriated and all I pretty much remember is just swaying to his music, singing along and having great fun. I do remember he played most of his greatest hits, including some 3-4 songs from ‘A Ghost is Born’. That’s it. I truly do not remember much else. I am glad I got to see him play some of my favorite songs live, but I also do wish I could remember much from it.

18. Weezer at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: I have absolutely no idea how long ago it was that I had heard to Weezer last. The ‘blue album’ was good and I had heard a few of their other songs. Good show to sing along to. I remember it was night at 9 or so and my friends and I were just so damn tired that, admittedly, we just stayed at the back of the crowd and had a low key experience of the show. They did play Islands in the Sun and that was good enough for me.

19. Lettuce at 8035 Music Festival, Des Moines, IA: Hands down the best band that played at the 2015 8035! There is something about jam bands and watching them live. It is like driving through the forests of Colorado in Fall. That is just exactly how you must experience it. And Lettuce put on a great show. It didn’t matter if you were familiar with the band or not, you were dancing! They even got a touring singer come out and sing vocals for a few really groovy funk numbers. Definitely the highlight of the entire music festival.

Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: A new music festival that was scheduled to take place at the Waterworks park, less than a mile from my apartment had some last minute changes in the venue due to flooding concerns. With the venue moved at the last moment from Des Moines to St. Charles, a small town half an hour down I-35, I was a little bit apprehensive about the venue but it turned out to be just great. And the whole music festival went so well, that the organizers are going to stick with St. Charles for this year’s edition. Works for me!

20. Future Islands at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: This is a band that I don’t think I will get tired of seeing them live. This was my second time, having seen them at Wooly’s in 2014, and it was an even better show. That lead singer can dance. Clearly a ladies’ man (he was even wearing golden color boots), he was sweating and “ready to take all the women to the moon” by the end of the show (overheard at the show). This band really does redefine bass grooves and showmanship. Grace Potter, true to her name, puts on a show with enormous amounts of grace. This man, on the other hand, puts on a show with sheer raw energy and intensity. Regardless of whether you are familiar with this band or not, you WILL be dancing at their show. I also do sincerely hope they starts playing Like the Moon at their shows. I could make an argument that it is their best hidden gem, and it is so good that it doesn’t deserve to be hidden anymore. On a personal note, this band brings back strong memories from my solo vacation to Colorado. I was, after all playing ‘Singles’ for a good part of the 1600 mile drive. FYI, I could start dancing right now listening to them on my earphones in the coffee shop.

21. St. Paul and the Broken Bones at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Second time as well, having seen them at Wooly’s in 2014. Mr. Paul, the lead singer, really is the Ottis Redding of this generation. And the band’s basslines will always remind me that I love playing the bass guitar. They played an hour long set at the festival in the sweltering 95 degree heat, AND they did so wearing full fledged suits! I think they did a bit of sweating. But this band is one of my favorite bands and they introduced me to a genre I didn’t know existed and I love. ‘Half a City’ is a great debut album and I am looking forward to an even better sophomore. And then some more shows!

22. Madisen Ward and Mama Bear at Hinterland Music Festival AND Vaudewille Mews: That is right. I saw this band twice last year, and it is right at the top of bands I discovered in 2015. This is a mother and son duo who play folk music. I have not been naturally attracted to folk music like I have been to so many other genres. I had always felt that most bands focus more on the sound of folk music than on the melody of the songs. Which is why I fell in love with MW first time I heard Silent Movies. But Silent Movies was just one of the 12 beautiful and melodious songs on their debut album ‘Skeleton Crew’. In fact, it was also an anomaly, as it seemed to be a rather happy song. Almost every other song on their album is the kind of song you listen to just before you throw yourself off a cliff. I could go one step ahead and say that listening to them when you are feeling gloomy can make you feel that the ‘jumping off a cliff’ part is actually a reasonable idea. Perhaps, at this point, I should point out that the most depressing song I heard in 2015 was from ‘Skeleton Crew’ and it is Dead Daffodils. Yes, I know just the name of the song can make you feel like giving up on life altogether. The song will make sure you do just that.

As far as the shows went, I have to admire the old woman’s passion to travel so much and have all that energy at that age to play so many shows in a year. At the Vaudewille Mews show, she played a haunting, stripped down version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams and Ben E King’s Stand By Me. The VM show was a very intimate one and I was right in front of the band. And this really is a band that one should watch in an intimate venue. Madisen Ward has a beautiful voice that seems to be singing in the most appropriate genre and melody. Down in Mississippi will always be a highlight at their shows just because of the power of MW’s voice and the spell that it casts on the audience, captivating them completely. And that effect is amplified best at an intimate venue.

I am hoping to catch them again in Kansas City this July. It won’t be at an intimate venue, but it will do just the same. And I will definitely be on the lookout for their sophomore album.

23. TV on the Radio at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Take David Bowie, mix it with copious amounts of Nine Inch Nails, then add some Prince for good measure, and you might just begin to envision how TVOTR sounds like. ‘Seeds’ is the best summer album I have heard since ‘Evil Friends’ by Portugal. The Man. And with a back catalog that has songs such as Wolf Like Me, Staring at the Sun, this band’s live shows do not disappoint. There is a lot of DJ stuff in their sounds, and a lot of live instruments as well. I don’t mind either way simply because they have created a very refreshing new sound that you can sing along (Happy Idiot), dance to (Lazerray) and even get charged up ready to smash some windows (Wolf Like Me). I also do hope they start playing Right Now – easily the best dance track of their entire catalog – on their shows. ‘Seeds’ is an album I will always associate with the summer of 2015 and everything it felt like. I still do need to properly explore their back catalog and will be on the lookout for their next album/tour. Strongly recommend this band!

24. Brandi Carlile at Hinterland Music Festival, St. Charles, IA: Country music has always been at the wrong end of my taste spectrum. I have always felt that mainstream country has its focus more on song structure, sound and lyrics and not much on creating new melody (kinda like blues too). Brandi Carlile is one of the exceptions and I fully enjoy her music. Her show was high energy with the entire crowd singing along to most of the songs. But I have to admit, the highlight of the show when she got the members of the Old Crow Medicine Show join her on stage to play a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California! She poured her heart and soul into singing the high pitch portions of the song, and it was truly impressive and powerful! That’s when it hit me that here is a bluegrass band and a country singer covering a rock n’ roll classic by Led Zeppelin. I suppose all is well with mankind after all. I am looking to see her in concert this month (June) again in Des Moines, and I know I won’t be disappointed.

Honorable mention to Old Crow Medicine Show and a not so honorable mention to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Edward Sharpe was drunk and high and could barely get himself to sing to the most basic standards. Shame on him for such lack of professionalism).

2015 Concerts in Review: Part 2

It appears that I am now able to actually conjure up Part 2 of a post, as opposed to simply intending to do so. So here is the Part 2 (of 4) for reviewing the concerts i went to in 2015 – the best year on record for me. Part 1 can be found here.

9. Tame Impala at Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO: One of the few bands that I have become a superfan of in the past 2-3 years is Tame Impala. Kevin Parker is well on his way to become a truly versatile musician and producer. ‘Lonerism’ was one of the best albums I heard in 2014, and his latest album ‘Currents’ is even better. However, the concert was scheduled prior to the release of his latest album (a practice I am not particularly a big fan of). So even though he did play Let it Happen, Eventually, Cause I’m a Man (he did NOT play The Less I Know the Better), I was not familiar with them. But he did play most of ‘Lonerism’, so that pretty much got me my money’s worth. In fact, it made up for the last time I saw them Live and missed half their show.

I have to admit this was the most ‘psychedelic’ show I had ever been to. The visuals, of which there were plenty, pretty much consisted of hypnotic wheels, laser beams generating abstract images, and pretty much just dope shit. I suppose that is the kind of stuff one sees when they are on shrooms, but I wouldn’t know (gotta fix that!). Quite fitting the band’s music for sure. I am definitely looking forward to seeing them live again when they play their new album – especially now that I know it inside out!

10. Dave Matthews Band at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, IA: I got on the DMB wagon way way late. In fact I got on it so late, that I found out many people who were on it had gotten off it! I eventually learnt that his group of fans were the kind who get overly obsessed with the man – to the point where they know every single song he has made, and also believe that he can do no wrong. This would typically generate a hype among his super-fans that could appear manufactured for the non-super-fans. And I can totally see why this could be putting off for folks who do not want to be identified with the super-fans. As far as my own discovery goes, I had no clue about the overly obsessive mindset of his fans. I just happened to buy ‘Crash’ at a sale and proceeded to listen to it, and I loved it. Then I listened to ‘Busted Stuff’ and then to ‘Under the Table and Dreaming’ and loved all of it. Then I found out he was playing in Des Moines and went to the show with a friend. I still listen to him and will continue to do so and go to more concerts if I can.

Now about the show: I will go ahead and say it – DMB is in the top 3 shows I have ever seen in terms of pure musicianship. The other two being Steven Wilson and King Crimson. In fact, it is probably safe to say that Dave Matthews was the worst musician on stage. And the fact that that is a compliment should indicate how good his bandmates are. (I could easily say that about Steven Wilson as well). The band first played an acoustic set with Dave looking remarkably sober (to which my friend reacted “I didn’t pay all this money to see Dave play sober!”) and then played an electric set (with the ‘sober problem’ quite evidently fixed during the break). This being my first DMB show, it was truly fantastic to see how the whole crowd seemed to know the words to each and every song that he played. (Super fans indeed!) And with such a huge back catalog, the band plays a different set every night, preserving the element of surprise (or disappointment) for everyone.

With that being the state, I was pretty satisfied with the final setlist. He played most of my favorites #41, What would You Say?, Ants Marching, Space Between and, of course, Grey Street. Sure I would have loved for him to play Satellite and Jimi Thing, but hey there is always another time. Overall it was a very energizing experience being around such passionate fans jumping and singing and screaming all the time – something I will remember more than just fondly. And I truly mean it when I say I had no business being there in the first place – unstoned. Gotta definitely fix that next time! And trust me, there WILL BE a next time!

11. Esperaza Spalding at Wooly’s, Des Moines, IA: I like to play bass guitar. Esperaza Spalding plays bass guitar, and she is pretty good at it. That was pretty much the reason I went there. And she did not disappoint. Now imagine how well you can recite the English alphabet. Pretty easy right? Perhaps something that you can just play around and still get it right and not even put in any effort at all. It’s like you just own the whole act of reciting the alphabet. Playing bass is Esperaza Spalding’s equivalent of reciting the English alphabet. It was not just her skill I was impressed with. It was the fact that she made it look so god damn easy that blew me away. I just cannot emphasize that enough. She not only made the bass guitar sing, she also made it dance, headbang, clap, jump up and down and just make the crowd completely forget that it was just nothing more than a god damn bass guitar. Lots of funk, some reggae, some rock, and lots of jazz and a whole lot of fun! I may not explore her music separately but will definitely be going to see her live again if I get a chance!

12. Shania Twain at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, IA: My one true guilty pleasure, and honestly I don’t think I would even think twice about calling it guilty. ‘Come on Over’ was one of the first albums I fell in love with back in high school. My friend and I were totally looking forward to this for months together. Unfortunately, the timing of certain events led to me just go there by myself. I have to admit I couldn’t enjoy the show as much as I had anticipated I would due to the circumstances, but I did see her play all the songs I wanted her to – Man! I feel like a woman!, Don’t be Stupid, Rock this Country, From this Moment on, You’re still the one, I’m gonna getcha good!, and of course, That Don’t Impress me Much! This was probably her last tour, so I am glad I got to see her. The venue was packed to capacity and I have to admit I was surprised to find a lot of dudes – much more than what I had expected!

13. The Aristocrats at The Gaslamp, Des Moines, IA: The Aristocrats is a band that consists of Marco Minneman, Guthrie Govan (both of whom play for Steven Wilson’s band) and Bryan Beller. I had missed out on watching Marco and Guthrie play with Steven as they were doing their own thing with The Aristocrats. But no worries. The band decided to play at The Gaslamp! (First reaction when I heard about it: “Wait, what? The fuckin’ Gaslamp? If I tried hard enough, I could get a gig for myself there!”) It is an almost dive bar with a makeshift stage and a room with a capacity of about 100 max, and it is just about 2-3 blocks from my apartment. And The Aristocrats played here. It was surprising to the point of being plain ridiculous. But it did happen, and 3 musicians put up a great show. There was a crowd of about 80 or so and the band played great music – mostly instrumental. It was not a jam band by any means, but a band which use their instruments to play precise songs. Smuggler’s Corridor was my personal favorite (apparently inspired by the Breaking Bad scene where Walt kicks a barrel full of money across the desert). All in all, I was majorly satisfied to see some of my favorite musicians play at the fuckin’ Gaslamp, of all places! Still don’t believe it!

14. Beach House at The Slowdown, Omaha, NE: One of the other bands (after Tame Impala) that I have become a super fan of is Beach House. This band simply makes some of the most depressing, melodious, poetic and ultimately beautiful songs I have heard in my life. I saw them at The Slowdown, which has become my personal favorite venue in all the Midwest – a very intimate place where everyone gets to see and hear the band optimally. Put it the other way round, I would say that Beach House is the kind of band you want to see at The Slowdown.

I cannot praise the band’s Teen Dream album enough. It is one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard and it is an album that I can never simply play in the background. It will always demand my full attention and require an emotional investment every time I choose to listen to it. It is THAT intense. The concert was exactly like that – intense. Nobody in the crowd said a fucking word throughout the show. (It probably helped that the band had the venue paste notes asking the crowd to maintain silence throughout the show). And neither did I. I was more than happy to just shut the fuck up and let the music do the talking. And speak to me it did. Songs from ‘Depression Cherry’, ‘Teen Dream’ and ‘Bloom’ concocted a feeling of great satisfaction and contentment – something that told me that I had everything I ever needed and that it was now time to give something back. And if I am to be very specific and honest, I will say that this was the show where I felt the strongest connection to the band and to the music – something that even led to the minor epiphany during Lazuli. Sure they didn’t play that one song (10 Mile Stereo) that I had believed would push my experience into the plane of higher consciousness. But in the end, they didn’t need to. Wild, Myth, Silver Soul, Walk in the Park, Other People, and Lazuli were sufficient to take me to that other place and gently guide me back to earth.

I will always cherish this particular show. It reminded me of the Sigur Ros show that I saw in 2013 – a spiritual experience that had to be set aside from all the other shows I have been to. I almost decided to make the drive to Lawrence, KS to see them live again the following evening. And next time I just might.

15. Kraftwerk at Arvest Bank Theater, Kansas City, MO: Honest to God, I didn’t even know the band members were still even alive until a couple of years ago. I have had an exceptionally memorable bond with this band. ‘The Man Machine’ was, after all, one of the first albums I fell in love with when I was just a 6 year old kid. I would play the cassette, close my eyes and imagine that I was on a spaceship with the band playing the songs to an ecstatic crowd. And late last summer, there I was, watching the band play their best hits. It may not have been a spaceship, but fuck you, to me it was!

First of all, it was a 3-D show. That is correct. A 3-Dimensional show where the band members stood behind their keyboards in some kind of a glowing space suit (I told you it was a god damn space ship!) and mind-fuck visuals were beamed on the screen behind them in 3D. The crowd were given 3D glasses for the show and the visuals were definitely very creative and detailed. It included a virtual race circuit for Autobahn, a Fritz Lang inspired Metropolis for, well, Metropolis, a bullet train for Trans Europe Express and so on. There was even a sequence during Spacelab where a spaceship landed in a spot that was clearly made to look like downtown Kansas City. And so yes, again, fuck you! I was in a god damn spaceship! (Don’t you dare mess with my childhood dream!)

Seriously, the stage just consisted of the 4 dudes and their keyboards. Nothing else, no one else. And I have to admit it was hard to figure out how much of their music was pre-programmed and how much of it was played live. But I don’t think that really mattered much. The setlist was pretty much their Greatest Hits, with an added bonus of them playing the full The Man Machine album! This included an encore where they played The Robots with 4 actual robots in place of the band members. Pretty cool really. Computer Love, Radioactivity, Autobahn, Trans Europe Express, all their best songs were played that night.

I truly wished it was not a seated show and instead consisted of sufficient amounts of alcohol consumption and general bad dancing and overall merry making in a standing show. But hey, I don’t think I can complain at all. The first thing I did after the show was call up my dad and tell him how exciting it was to see the band that he had introduced me to when I was a kid. I do wish I could have taken him to the show, I know it would have meant a lot to him, but alas, there was this small issue of him being half way around the world from me.

I will always be glad that I got to see the band play live in my, and more importantly, their lifetime.

16. Mark Knopfler at Chicago Theater, Chicago, IL: Mark Knopfler has a very special place in my life. Dire Straits was the first band that I truly fell in love with – well before I discovered Pink Floyd. I knew nothing about the band, but a cassette I rented in my high school became the start of a great bond that I would develop with the music and lyrics of Dire Straits. It was the band that began the ‘mellowing down’ process of my later adolescence, heralding a transition from all things metal to something more nuanced and melodious. I had the opportunity to see him open for Bob Dylan a few years ago in Omaha. But I knew that show did not do justice to his vast catalog and to his own deserved place as the main act. But this one did – for the most part. I am not going to dwell much on the fact that I have never seen any artist be so bored and uninterested in singing some of their own songs as I did with Knopfler singing Sultans of Swing and So Far Away. And the reason I am not going to dwell on it is because of what else he played, and played supremely well.

With every artist, I have a few songs that I truly love. These are not necessarily B-sides but maybe even like C or D sides, so to speak. They are almost never performed live and you will rarely hear them on the radio. I tend to strongly associate these songs with certain emotions, a specific state of mind, a place, a vision from the past, a vision for the then future, a certain someone, a feeling of what could have been perhaps, some regret, an awareness of the desire for a different set of outcomes in the past, and some inevitable, leftover hope for the future. And it has typically been an unfulfilled hope to see these songs played live. So when Mark Knopfler played two of those songs – On Every Street and Your Latest Trick – it actually took me a few seconds to figure out what song he was actually playing. I hadn’t heard them in years in an apparent attempt to isolate and box all the feelings, emotions and memories that came with it. And I had been largely successful at it too. Because when those memories came flooding back to me at the Chicago Theater, they were all firmly in hindsight; and I was looking back with a sense of sympathy and mature acknowledgment, instead of nostalgia and regret. It was a powerful experience being there and watching him play those two songs that captured so much of my later adolescence so deeply.

In the end, it almost became that everything else was a bonus. But that would be not only unfair, but also plain incorrect. Romeo & Juliet, Paraguay, Privateering, and Theme from Local Hero all stood out on their own. And at the end, I felt that I had finally laid to rest a longing from my adolescent days to see Mark Knopfler live and to see him play those songs that could have very well been the soundtrack to those times.