Category Archives: Thoughts

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.

On Radical Islamic Terrorism

I have typically refrained from writing on religious matters of the terrorism kind. But I write this a day after the Orlando shootings – and I am doing this because I am truly shaken. The tragedy has made me question my own values and the way I see this world and the specific groups of people in it. I have had conflicting ideas and opinions surface in my mind ever since I woke up to the headline yesterday morning. And this post is my effort to sort through it, try to make some sense out of it, and to arrive at an acceptable understanding of the world around me that will not be in conflict with my core values.

Terrorism inspired by religion has become the most visible and tangible threat to the safety of people all over the world. The validation that is provided by religion to carry out the most heinous of attacks cannot be obtained anywhere else. That being said, there is pretty much just one religion that seems to inspire and validate these terrorist acts – Islam. Islamic terrorism has cut through all geographies and boundaries imaginable. There are no safe havens or out of reach places any more. And yes, please, let us just call it for what it is – Radical Islamic terrorism. There is no shame in saying that, and it is completely politically correct. (Disclaimer: I am not a Trump supporter and I will be completely OK if he suffers a stroke and becomes paralyzed tomorrow).

When most, if not all, of the terrorist acts on this planet are inspired by one religion, not acknowledging it and calling it out by name is like saying America does not have a gun problem. Saying that all Muslims in America are peace loving people who are true patriots of the USA and do not have any inclinations towards radicalism is like saying all gun owners are responsible and law abiding citizens who only use their guns for self-defense and hunting. Yes it is true that most Muslims living in America are peace loving people who embrace American values of tolerance and hard work, just like most of the gun owners in America are law abiding citizens who take pride in their guns for the right reasons and emphasize safety and responsibility while using them. But there is always going to be a small percentage of Muslims who get exposed to/seek out and practice extremist points of view, just like there are plenty of nut jobs with huge arsenals of guns because they believe the government is coming to kill them and take away their guns. Just like these paranoid nut jobs who listen to more popular idiots like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck for their daily dose of paranoia, there are Muslims who seek out extremist preaching – either online or through specific mosques – to feed their radical purpose in life. And just like we have the NRA who ensure that sufficient money and influence is maintained in the Congress to prevent any meaningful gun control – thereby implicitly increasing the number of lunatics with guns, there are terrorist organizations all over the world – and radical mosques within the US – who wield enough power, money, freedom and influence to continue spreading fear all over the world.

You don’t have to be a conservative or a liberal to see the above situation for what it is. It is just common sense and is based on simple facts. It is also very unfortunate and a lose/lose situation for all concerned. The inevitable presence of a small percentage of extremists in either camp can and will have everyone who are not part of the group to become apprehensive – or downright fearful – of everyone in it.

It is a loss for the innocent, peace-loving and responsible people in the group because they are prone to be looked upon as ‘one of them’ and are likely to face all the associated ridicule and social stigma that comes with it. It is a loss for an extremist because that is still a life that could have led to something constructive and beautiful. And finally, it is a loss for the general public not just whenever there is a tragedy, but to also have to live a daily lifestyle with fear and conflicting points of view on their own values of tolerance and security.

So calling it ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’ is both politically correct, and still secular. It is also common sense. In fact, calling it as such explicitly points out that it is the people who subscribe to the radical portion of Islam – and not all of them – that are the harbingers of such tragedy.

The Orlando shootings have, to no one’s surprise, drawn strong messages from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And what should still be of no surprise is that while Trump used it as an opportunity to call for tougher immigration measures, Clinton used it to further her message on gun control. Both points of view are necessary, and are actually not at all in conflict with each other. To say that the problem and associated solution relates to just one of them is not only obviously incomplete, but also dangerously wrong.

We live in a world where fear is the most precious asset for someone looking to gain power. One more such a tragedy before the elections, and I will be willing to bet on a Trump presidency. The rhetoric is easy and fear feeds fear. But that is not the solution. On the other hand, advocating caution, inaction and to say that we need to treat every Muslim, including those who are radicalized, with love and respect and tolerance – regardless of their explicit intent to kill innocent people – is not only naïve, but also just plain dumb and idiotic. There is a part of the solution that involves force, and it has to be used, and I definitely hope it is indeed used. There is also a part of the solution that involves peace. But the peaceful part of the solution has to come from within the Muslim community by making their collective voices of peace heard all around the world – not just when tragedy strikes, but as an every day message that reminds all fellow Muslims of the dangers of going on the wayward path. If the Muslim friends I have known throughout my life are any indication, there is no shortage of messages of love and peace to spread throughout the world of Islam by those who practice it sincerely.

But I am still waiting for it to happen. And for all our sakes, I hope it does.

Minimizing Decisions and Going to the Gym

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previously on NOT MAKING ANY DECISIONS: No Decision Weekend

Winter Diaries from Work Travels

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

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

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

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A Desolate Room with a Bleak View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Stressful Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t pray for us

We don’t need no Modern Jesus

To roll with us

The only rule we heed is

Never giving up

The only faith we have

Is faith in us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Collection of Intense Moments

In the entire history of mankind, the pursuit of the dark and depressing has never been actively encouraged or even accepted. Yet, the most beautiful art ever produced has been the product of artists expressing loss, pain, solitude, anger and a sense of longing. This apparent contradiction between the source of inspiration and the acceptance of its products by society has diminished steadily for me over the past few years. The dark arts have moved from the fringes of what mankind has to offer to being the very lens through which I now view society itself. I feel no attraction or emotion every time I see a Claude Monet painting, but my whole world came to a standstill when I first saw ‘Masks Confronting Death’ by James Ensor.

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Masks Confronting Death, by James Ensor

Art that convey themes of gloom, doom, mortality, depression and that explore the human condition permeate my inner consciousness to connect with me on a very fundamental platform. I could make a case that the dark arts would connect with all of us in the same way, with the end result depending on whether we choose to fight it or embrace it.

As a consequence of my active pursuit of the dark arts, I have been fortunate to discover and experience a few moments of extreme intensity and fulfillment. Most moved me to tears at that moment in time. And all have stayed with me till today (and very likely for good). These are moments I have to think twice about experiencing again – not because I don’t want to, but because I am not sure I am ready to experience that intensity all the time.

It is important to emphasize that a lack of anticipation of what was coming next was critical to these intense experiences moving me to tears. There were no expectations and all I made sure was to not offer any resistance. And I strongly believe that is why they generated such intensity.

So here goes:

1.ROUTINE (LIVE)by Steven Wilson: When I listened to Steven Wilson’s latest album Hand.Cannot.Erase, I already knew ROUTINE was the standout song. The story was perhaps the most depressing Steven Wilson has ever come up with (even comparing it to Drive Home or The Raven That Refused to Sing). The sadness and absolute despair in the voice of Ninet Tayeb is perhaps what pushed this song beyond the realms of normal consciousness. But that was until I watched the video. The CD/DVD that I had purchased did not have the video to the song and it was not released online either. The place I saw it first was when I saw the band Live in Madison. Steven Wilson introduced the song by stating that he had received feedback from numerous people that this was the most depressing song he had ever made (with his response being “As opposed to what?!”). He made no mention of the video on the screen that was to accompany the song. And then this is what I saw on the screen while Steven Wilson and his band played it live:

To say that I was moved by the video would be a gross understatement. I was very much in tears by the end of it. And so was the entire crowd at the show. I will even go to the extent of saying that my inability to completely break down and cry at that point (largely because I was very self conscious there) will remain as something of an unfulfilled void. The video, the live performance of the song and the entire crowd feeling the same emotions – it was the perfect combination of factors that led to this being one of the most intense moments I have ever felt. And this is what Steven Wilson has to say about the video and how he felt about playing it live:

Amongst the hundreds of songs I have written over the years, ‘Routine’ has a very special place. It’s a deeply sad story of loss and denial, but at its conclusion the clouds lift and there is acceptance at least. Having worked with her on 3 previous videos, I knew as soon as I wrote it that it was perfect for Jess to do something amazing with. Even then nothing prepared me for the organic beauty and power of the film she made, a painstaking labour of love that took her months to produce. When we play the song live I look out into the audience and see people swept away with emotion at the combination of music and animation. To find poetry and beauty in sadness is a wonderful thing I think.

The last sentence ties everything together for me. And I urge everyone to listen to the song, read the lyrics and then watch the video. It will give you a sense of fulfillment that is unavailable in the day to day life that we all lead. (On a side note, the video was not released online till late last year, which preserved the significance of the whole experience for me. And I have still not watched it. In fact, my 2nd viewing of the video will likely be when I see Steven Wilson again this March).

2. Roger Waters The Wall (Movie): Roger Waters did The Wall tour between 2010 and 2013 and took the larger than life production all over the world. It is the closest a Pink Floyd fan today will get to experience the tour from how it was in the 70’s. Of course I can always make an argument that it is even better – what with all the new technology available now. I was fortunate enough to watch it Live at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2012. To this day, it remains the gold standard in terms of a show production. And I highly doubt anyone will ever surpass that.

Roger Waters The Wall movie was part concert footage, and part road trip of the artist driving from his home in England to the beaches of Italy where his father was killed in World War 2. They show the entire concert from The Wall tour with scenes from the ‘road trip’ portion being embedded every few songs. Since I had been to the show myself, I knew what to expect out of the concert portion of the movie. However, I was not aware of what to expect from the road trip portion. I will not spoil a whole lot of the movie here. But will just recall that one specific sequence of scenes that led to me being moved to tears.

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In the beginning of the movie, Roger Waters is seen reading a letter (probably for the 1000th time) that his mother received during the war. It is the letter communicating the presumed death of his father in battle. The place of death is specified to be the beaches of Anzio, Italy. He embarks on a road trip to visit the beach and the nearby memorial. Once he reaches the beach, there is a quiet, melancholic moment when Roger Waters just stands on the beach and stares at the sea, the same letter in hand, and with tears flowing down his eyes. The peacefulness of the moment is punctuated with the sounds of the waves washing up on to the shores, and of the birds calling in the sky. One can sense a feeling of acceptance and closure wash over him as he stands there and tries to imagine what happened 70 odd years ago, how he never knew his father, and how that has come to define who he is today. A very moving scene about loss, the futility of war, and a contemplation of all that could have been, but never was.

And then the scene faded into the start of Comfortably Numb.

What can I say? That moment when the scene showing Roger Waters at the beach faded out and Comfortably Numb started playing – that is what I live for. That is the kind of fulfillment that keeps me looking forward to the next day in my life. That transition could not have been planned better. I have listened to that song thousands of time in my life. I know every note, every pause and every word of that song. And I also know exactly where it comes on the album. And I am so glad that the previous scene swept me away so much that I forgot that this song was coming up next. Needless to say, I was moved to tears right at that moment and through the song. I remember that night in Chicago when Roger Waters played that song Live. Everybody just shut the fuck up and just watched in awe. Nobody sang along. And Dave Kilimister played the guitar lead to perfection – without improvising. I suppose there are some songs you don’t sing along to and some guitar leads you do not improvise. Comfortably Numb is one of them.

And sitting in that theater, I felt an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction – of having experienced something truly wonderful and fulfilling.

3. The Line of The Horizon (poem) by Maria Petrovykh: Poems have never been my go-to medium to explore art. Largely because of my aversion to popular poetry themes of nature, beauty, love and social/historical commentary. This aversion unfortunately shielded me from the poems that did deal with themes that I connect with. And it was last winter – in the middle of working outside in the fields of rural Iowa – that I found this poem about old age and death. Mortality is a theme that has led me to numerous bouts of contemplation. And this poem touched a chord in me that I still feel every time I read it.

The Line of the Horizon

Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh

It’s just how it is, it’s the way of the ages;
years pass away, and friends pass away
and you suddenly realise the world is changing
and the fire of your heart is fading away.

Once the horizon was sharp as a knife,
a clear frontier between different states,
but now low mist hangs over the earth
—and this gentle cloud is the mercy of fate.

Age, I suppose, with its losses and fears,
age that silently saps our strength,
has blurred with the mist of unspilt tears
that clear divide between life and death.

So many you loved are no longer with you,
yet you chat to them as you always did.
You forget they’re no longer among the living;
that clear frontier is now shrouded in mist.

The same sort of woodland, same sort of field—
You probably won’t even notice the day
you chance to wander across the border,
chatting to someone long passed away.

I still vividly recollect my reaction to reading it the first time. Everything around me came to a halt. I forgot where I was and what I was doing there. And all my attention was focused on the words of the poem. And it felt like the last four lines took me across the horizon to give me a glimpse of what lay beyond, before gently bringing me back – wiser and in awe. It was then that I truly understood what Ian McEwan had written about poetry in his book Saturday. 

But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill….

Reading a poem that gave me a glimpse of the world beyond, and being able to truly appreciate Ian McEwan’s words in the process, generated an experience that felt like a piece of jigsaw falling into its place. It was like a new perspective gained, or reaching a vantage point that offers a bird’s eye view of the vagaries of life – and watching the horizon get increasingly blurry with the passing of time.

I do not recollect how long I was in that state of mind. But I have gone back to this poem a few times over the past year every time I wanted to get a glimpse of the world beyond. And every time, I have come back wiser and with a newer perspective. But as time passes, I know that some day my trip beyond that horizon will not include a return journey.

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I can only hope that in the months and years to come, I have the opportunity to discover and experience an intensity and fulfillment such as the ones I have outlined here. I do believe that as long as I continue to seek, I shall be rewarded. And as this world progresses to an uncertain future, I do hope that society works to break down the perception of the dark arts, and that more and more people gain a sense of wonder and awe that is unavailable in their otherwise routine lives.

 

 

 

 

 

Dear America, Let’s Talk About LEGAL Immigration

Dear America,

I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien

I’m an Englishman in New York

That was Sting singing in 1987. This is not 1987, this is 2015. I am not Sting. I am not even an Englishman, and I may not even be living in New York, but I am one of the many many aliens – more specifically, I am a ‘legal alien’- that moved to and currently live in this country. Rest assured, I do not come from a different planet with the objective of taking away your natural resources and destroying mankind. On the other hand, I am just another human being (of the homo sapien variety) who came to this land from half way around the planet about 6 years ago. (It is not me who is saying I am an alien. It is the US Government who says so and who reminds me of it every time I fill in some paperwork.)

No Not this Alien.

My story is like the many many stories you have heard over the past decades and centuries. It is the story of people coming here in search of a quality higher education and in search of a better, more liberal lifestyle than their home country. In the six years I have been here, I have had a great number of memorable experiences and befriended a large number of wonderful people. Everyone of them have been nothing short of being super nice to me. I have lived a lifestyle I never knew I could ever afford. And notwithstanding the sacrifices I have had to make in choosing to remain here, I can confidently state that I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here in the United States, taking in everything this country has to offer.

And all along the way, I have vastly contributed to you by working on the design of a number of highways and bridges critical to your infrastructure. I have paid my fair share (about 35% of my income) on taxes and have been a law abiding person (or alien, if you so prefer). I have supported and continue to support a lot of global and local businesses (including the neighborhood dive bar) with all the money I spend.

I am repeatedly told that I have a lot of great opportunities for me to pursue in my career in this country. I am told there are even more opportunities here lying ahead that will help me explore the world and live the lifestyle I have always wanted. And my mind savors the possibility of that future when I can do that. But alas! That is where the fairy tale ends and the nightmare begins.

You see, as far as the Government here is concerned, I am still an alien. I maybe a ‘legal’ alien, but an alien nonetheless. And I am treated as one. I am willing to acknowledge that yes, I am coming from a different country and I need permission from the host to continue my stay. Unfortunately, the issuance of that permission involves the process of transforming from the status of an ‘Alien’ to that of an ‘Immigrant’ or ‘Permanent Resident’. And as you may be aware, this is a general nightmare for all the ‘aliens’.

What is it that you said? You are NOT aware of the nightmare? Oh, my bad! Of course you do not know! That is because nobody ever talks about the ‘legal’ immigrants in this country. I am sure you are fully up to date on the latest proposals to stem the flow of ‘illegal’ immigrants from the southern border with Mexico. Of course you are! All you have to do is switch on the news and you will find all you ever need to know about how the influx of illegal immigrants is creating a national security issue and how it is killing American jobs. You will learn the full gamut of opinions on this matter – from granting amnesty to the illegal immigrants to making them pay fines to deporting the bad ones to deporting all 11 million of them. Of course everyone wants to build a wall of some sort on the US-Mexico border. You know all about that for sure.

So yes, you know all there is to know about ‘illegal’ immigration and all the impacts to the US economy and security that are associated with it. But you have absolutely zero idea about the ‘legal’ immigrants and what we go through. We are the people who sought a legal way to come to this country. You have no idea of all the shit we had to go through to just get a visa to come here and study. And we worked hard every step of the way – always staying (with an abundance of fear) within the legal framework. We came here to not just consume the better life on offer, we also came here to contribute our services and skills. We have worked hard after we came here and we have made a good life out of the opportunities that came our way.

So in a way, we have achieved the American dream – until our visa runs out that is.

You see nobody is paying any attention to us people who seek to migrate to the United States legally and who have all our paperwork in place from the beginning. Did you know that, as a citizen of India, I need to wait for a total of up to 15 years in order for me to get my status changed from ‘Alien’ to ‘Permanent Resident’? Did you know that right now 2 out of every 3 applications for a highly skilled immigrant visa are being denied? Did you know that you can come to this country, get a Master’s or PhD degree in one of the top universities here, get a job requiring a very specific skill set, be a top performer at the job, and then just have to leave all of it within a year just because you happened to be among those who did not get their visa approved? Do you even know that the highly skilled work visas are granted on the basis of a lottery? Yes. Absolute chance. No merit. Do you know that during the Clinton years, the H1B visas (highly skilled workers) was hiked to 4 times what it is now? And did you know that the number of Green Cards issued annually stayed the same, creating a massive massive backlog (of 10 years) for people who have been waiting in the ‘legal’ line?

Of course you have no idea about all this. Why would you? Why would the media care about this? They don’t see any immediate detrimental impact to the society. It is much easier for them to stick with the ‘They took our jobs!’ narrative instead. Our work here is not measured on our contribution to the society and economy. It is measured in terms of number of American jobs lost. Never mind that the special STEM related skill sets that many of us ‘legal’ immigrants bring with us is something that this country sorely needs to sustain itself. Also never mind that that demand is impossible to be met from just domestic supply. None of this matters to the media who are only focused on exposing the ‘plight of hard working Americans whose jobs are being taken away by immigrants!’ How dare we provide the skills and services this country so badly lacks? And how dare we demand that we be given due recognition for our work by granting us permanent residency?

What about the politicians you ask? Well, what about them? Barely anyone has made any noise. This is a low risk low reward issue for all politicians. Can they do anything? Of course they can. They can do a number of things that can easily fix this mess that is the legal immigration system. But they just don’t. And because they haven’t done anything worth while for decades together, guess what? The system has been ripe for abuse!

Oh the irony.

The incentive to come to this country is so great for a lot of people that you inevitably have people who game the system, find its loopholes, and willfully exploit them for their own benefit. Oh and there are a whole bunch of them. Did you know that you can have one single person apply for a visa through up to 6 different companies? That is 6 different applications for the same person, in case you didn’t figure out. Way to increase your odds, right? Or what about those people who come en masse to the US to attend a makeshift/fake university for the sole purpose of becoming eligible for a work visa application? Did you know that these pseudo degree holders stand the same chance of getting approved for the visa as a legal immigrant who is a PhD holder from MIT? Did you know that each country has a fixed quota for allotment of green cards every year? On what is it based, you ask? Well, here is what it is NOT based on: Merit. I come from a country that currently has a back log of about 10 years. That is 10 years after you file the application, which usually happens 2-4 years after you start working, which in turn happens after I have finished my 2-5 year schooling. I will let you add up the numbers for shock value. So what is it based on? Again, the answer is not merit. Many many times, a person (or alien) who doesn’t necessarily have any significant skill set to contribute to the society stands to get his/her Green Card within a matter of months just because of their specific nationality. Is this fair? Is this helping this country? And guess whose low paying jobs these unskilled Green Card holders are taking away?

So yes, the politicians and the media have neglected the legal immigration system long enough to enable its long running abuse. You know the disappointing part? It is easy to fix. It is infinitely easier to fix than the ‘illegal immigration’ problem that everyone ‘wants’ to fix. But nobody is talking about it. Actually, I take that back. I did go through all the 2016 Presidential candidates’ stance on the issue of immigrants. Most of them didn’t have one – legal or illegal. Some had the usual rhetoric about building a wall and securing the borders. But there were two candidates who actually gave specifics on the issue of ‘legal’ immigration. Both said the same exact thing. They spoke about raising the minimum prevailing wage for the positions that call for immigrant workers. This is definitely a step in the right direction to address the abuse of the system. But it is no way sufficient. More needs to be done to bring awareness around this issue and to call for Congress to pass laws that will reform the system for those who wish to migrate to this country legally and contribute to its growth and culture.

Oh you ask who those two candidates are? One is Bernie Sanders and the other is Donald Trump. Yes, a Democratic Socialist and an arrogant Buffoon are the only two people who have even got some kind of an idea about what needs to be done to bring workers into this country legally. (Not sure what that says about this country’s politicians, but that is another story for another day).

So my dear America, yes this is the state I and thousands of others like me find ourselves in. We have a highly specialized skill set that this country badly needs. We all achieve and live the American dream until our visa runs out. But our contribution is always measured in terms of the number of American jobs lost. We are subject to being the victims of people who abuse the system we are trying to respect – a system that has been neglected for far too long. We go out of the way to ensure that we live here ‘legally’, yet no one is paying attention to our needs. All the while when the whole country is looking to find a ‘solution’ to those who come here ‘illegally’.

Yes, we know that is necessary as well. But please, do not pretend that we don’t exist. We do, and we are only trying to contribute. So please pay us some attention and in the process, help us help you grow?

Yours Truly,

A Legal Alien

Going Back Home After 3 Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I will go back to reality.

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

Lessons on Building a Music Collection – Vinyl and CDs

For about 10 years or so, I spent barely anything at all on purchasing music. My family has always had a good sound system at home. But almost all my music purchases happened before the internet came to India. Following the advent of the internet, I maybe bought a grand total of 3 albums in the next 10 years. The rampant music piracy and sharing of files on P2P websites and servers made it that much easier to not spend on music that I could get for free. It was only when I came to the US, got a job and started working, that I found myself being drawn to the idea of actually ‘owning’ the physical form of music. It was also around the same time that I was particularly influenced by Steven Wilson’s constant glorification of the vinyl record. I began to dream of having my own record collection and record player. I romanticized the idea of holding an old LP in my hand and watching it spin as the music started playing. Its appeal kept growing every single time I thought about it. So I invested in a good sound system and a record player. And then I started buying used and new vinyl.

Today, after about 3 1/2 years, I can proudly state that I have with me about 300 vinyl records of bands from diverse genres and generations. In addition to this, I also own close to 200 CDs, a third of which were just simply given to me by my close friend when he moved. Yes, I am proud of the current state of my collection and all the new music that I have discovered along the way. But this post is not about me bragging about what I have or don’t have. Instead it is about the things that I learnt during that journey.

The first record I bought was AC/DC’s Back in Black brand new. Fabulous album and I was already familiar with many of the songs on it. I had been listening to it for about a week when I went to a used record store. And then I bought about 4 records there – easy considering that used records are just so inexpensive! I was super excited about it and began to play those. Back in Black went to the shelf and I only played it again last week after a gap of 3 1/2 years. A week or two later, I was at another record store and bought some more. The previous batch of records then went to the shelf. This process repeated itself over and over.

By the time I realized what was happening, I already had close to 200 records in my shelf including complete box sets of classical music – Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, you name it. But I had only explored the full depths of the music on less than a quarter of those. I have listened to every single record I own at least once. But the joys of exploring the depths of a song were lost on me as far as most of my collection went. Following this realization, I stopped buying new music for a few months and instead focused on exploring whatever I already had. That proved to be a masterstroke and over the course of the following few months, the music on many of the albums truly revealed its inner depths to me. And listening to it in the high quality audio that only the vinyl can provide, I was duly rewarded for the investment. In hindsight, it was a lesson that I had to learn the hard way, and I am glad that I am now that much wiser.

Another lesson I learnt in a similar fashion was on WHAT records to buy when in a record store. Typically, whenever I enter a record store, I have absolutely no idea of what I want, let alone what I am going to walk out with. I take immense satisfaction in spending hours together digging through hundreds of records – many times arranged in no particular manner – and discovering a gem hidden among them. That moment of inspiration is priceless and I have gone through that process dozens of times. (I even built my complete Fleetwood Mac album set that way).

But one unwanted consequence of the same process is the discovery of used records by artists that you feel you ‘might like’ or are from artists you ‘have heard of’ or ‘want to explore’. In itself, this is a fairly innocuous occurrence. You usually find yourself with about 5-6 of these ‘type’ of records after all the digging through. These albums are usually very cheap – costing anywhere between $2 to $10 each. However, typically what happens – and I say this from experience – is that in addition to these, you also come across that one awesome album from a new pressing that can cost anywhere between $20 to $35. So what you are going to see is that you are getting 5-6 records for $30 instead of one record for $30. And so you purchase the used records for $30 while leaving out the one that you really wanted for the same amount. Essentially, you just spent the same amount of money on 5- 6 records – by bands that you may or may not be familiar with, and the music that you do not know if you will or will not like – as you would have on that one album that you really really wanted and already knew that you liked that music.

Long story short, it is not about the quantity. It really is about the quality. I will freely admit that there are dozens of records at my place that I will probably never listen to again. And if I chosen differently when it came to all those records, I would have easily bought a whole bunch of albums that I know for a fact I would have devoured completely. So yes, it is not about the numbers. It is about what speaks to you truly.

Yet another under rated aspect of collecting music is keeping it organized. When your collection passes a certain point (and you will never see this coming), stuff simply becomes hard to find. The text on the thickness of the sleeve can only be visible from so far out. Separating it into genres and by artist names alphabetically will go a long way in 1) reminding you of what you already have, 2) what to buy and to not buy in the future, and 3) finding the right music for the right occasion. I personally still need to find a wooden shelf of the right size to organize my entire collection.

So there you are. A few starter tips to be aware of while building your music collection. What I have said above very well applies to CDs. Of course, the Mp3 person does not have much to read into here.

And if you are really curious to see how my music collection looks, here you go:

My Books, CDs and Vinyl

My Books, CDs and Vinyl

More Vinyl

More Vinyl

 

Are You Replaceable?

It’s a simple question, but one that is perhaps the hardest to ask of yourself. 

“Am I Replaceable?”

Well, maybe not everyone, but most of us.

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? 

No, wrong. 

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? 

Again, wrong.

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?” 

Or:

“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. 

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PS: At some point in time in the future, I intend to write about the one exception to this rule: ART.