Thursday, December 31, 2009

Inside my comfort zone

In It Might Get Loud, Jack White makes a remark that stuck. To paraphrase, he states that great art comes from emotional conflict. He talks about how he has to stop himself from getting comfortable and take himself to a hard place emotionally, because that’s the only place from where his creativity flows.

As I look at the frequency of posts on this blog go down, I wonder about that more and more. This blog isn’t high art, and I’m not Jack White. However, writing here requires a level of ardor that I don’t feel that often anymore. I’ve been in a number of situations this year that would have me mad, or angry or happy and pages of (bad) musings would’ve come out of it. But not anymore. So this blog sits, forlorn.

This emotional settling down isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I was too excitable for my own good in the past. But I worry about crossing over and becoming blasé. The world is a beautiful place and there’s lots to love and be excited about here. It’s just that a lot of things don’t seem  as blog-worthy anymore. In addition, tidbits, random insights and link-love have passed over to Twitter

As the zeros draw to a close, I don’t fret about the future of this blog. It has its place and its pleasures. It’s just that I (or you, dear reader) will partake of it less frequently than before.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Punching at the Sun

I particularly enjoyed reading Jim Collins’ two management classics Good to Great and Built to Last. One of my favorite parts in Good to Great is the window vs. mirror paradigm used by successful CEOs to describe success and failure.

Put simply, when successful, CEOs of great companies tended to use the ‘window’ paradigm – they say things like “I got lucky, the economy turned around at the right time” or “I have a great management team” – statements that deflected credit for the success away from them as individuals to external factors beyond their control i.e. outside their ‘window’.

In contrast, they used the ‘mirror’ unsparingly in times of failure. Every failure of the company finally rested at their feet. It was their fault that they didn’t judge the economy slowdown, or that they let costs get out of hand. They held the mirror, where every problem was because of a failure on their part.

By these standards, there isn’t much hope for Wall Street. This President on the other hand, generally comes through as being quite the ‘Great’ CEO.

However, where I find this analogy most interesting overall was in terms of how you look back at life. I was having a conversation with SK about an incident a couple of years back, and it was interesting how I saw it differently from him. As a third-party bystander, he didn’t see it as being my fault.

However, in my head I could see a million different places where I could’ve done things differently, and exhibited better judgment. May I have those decision points back and do the right thing this time around please? But then, real life offers you no do-overs.

Every day, you face small and big hassles and crises. I could be the ‘window’, blaming the world for my problems and existential angst that crops up occasionally. But the ‘mirror’ seems like a better thing to hang on the walls of your life-abode.

I’m normally not given to this much navel-gazing, but this seems to be all that’s flowing from my keyboard, so that’s the way it goes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Right-ward pacing

I play softball at work with my co-workers. Our in-field is really really good. We have great people at first base, third base and shortstop positions.

I haven’t really learnt softball/baseball as properly as some of these guys did, so I observe their technique with great interest. Our shortstop (let’s call him T) throws the ball in a very specific manner. He picks up the ball or catches it off the bounce, gets into position and then pauses for maybe half a second. Then he lets the ball go to first/third base depending on what’s necessary.

That stop is key. He could, like a lot of people I’ve seen, release the ball as soon as it hits his hands. But he stops, makes sure his body and arm are in perfect position and then positively rockets the ball to the right player (I did say our in-field is good). The half-second margin he gives himself adds a lot of things: it ensures his body and arm are in position, he has a clear assessment of where he has to throw the ball to be most effective, guarantees the accuracy of his throw and prevents injuries. In all likelihood, he more than regains the time lost during the pause through the speed of his eventual throw, since he’s never in a suboptimal position while throwing.

As we navigate our way through this wired, ever-connected, faster! faster! world, this is a parallel I think about a lot. I see people all around me with the dial set to 11, furiously multitasking. Updating Facebook status at concert? Check. Tweeting while watching a movie? Check. Email while hanging out with friends (in lieu of real conversation)? Check. Doing more! All the time! With less time!? Check.

While in and of themselves, I have no problem with any of these, the question I ask is: as we navigate through our lives, faster and faster, doing more and more things, are we still in sight of what matters? I can only speak for myself, but the more overscheduled I get, the more important it becomes for me to unplug and just be. I find something vital about disconnecting and letting my brain float. Long stretches of time, at home or outside where I have no clear agenda are worthwhile. I may read for a while, watch Once for the nth time or just make a cup of chai and stare out my balcony.

I saw an interesting talk at my workplace by Carl Honore, the author of In Praise of Slowness where he talks about doing things not too fast or too slow, but at the right pace. In part, it was a relief to see I wasn’t the only person who felt this way.

What does this mean for me apropos life on a day-to-day basis? Unplugging a bit more, saying ‘no’ occasionally to random stuff that doesn’t really make me happy anyway and less multi-tasking, so I’m engaged with what I am doing. Somehow right now this seems to mean shorter yet more productive workdays, a clearer and less stressed-out brain and a happier me. What’s to not like?

Edit: Fixed typo.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Stories on a trip

Tell me a story
Sing me a song
Of life’s wars lost
And sundry battles won

Tolstoy once wrote “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Traveling groups fall in similar categories. They are similar, yet different in their own ways.

Duomo di Milano, Milan

A precocious pre-teen is skipping up the steps, adult-chic glasses in hand. The father follows the mother. Disaffected teen brings up the rear, clicking away on a phone. She looks like she doesn’t want to be here. I wonder: What happens to children in their teens?

As we climb up to the roof, I see a young girl, presumably with her mother. Late teen, at most early twenties. I think it’s a mother-daughter bonding trip. AG thinks maybe the girl is here studying abroad, and her mother is here to visit her. I like this story better. They seem to be enjoying themselves. The bond they share is visible. I see them repeating this: trips together, new experiences, shared mother-daughter moments.

Passenger Train – Milan to Tirano

A father and young pre-teen boy. The father looks like a young Walter Matthau. His beard already has a salt-and-pepper streak. Again, the father-son bond is apparent. The son holds on to his father’s hands occasionally. They share laughs, secret confidences I half-wish I could eavesdrop on.

It’s a passenger train so I’m guessing this is a day trip. I wonder where the mother is. Is it that the parents are separated, and the child is spending the day with a father sorely missed, a son served up as collateral damage for an unfortunate turn of events?

Maybe it’s just that the mother’s working and father-son managed to take off for a day to bond. I like this story better.

Every story is different in its own way.

This came together in a 15-minute writing burst on the Milan-Tirano train. Thanks to AG “Gullito” for one of the story ideas, for reading an initial draft and his stamp of approval.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Milan, Lombardy, Italy - 11th September 2009

The more you know the less you feel
Some pray for others steal
Blessings not just for the ones who kneel,

- U2, “City of Blinding Lights

Looking at Renaissance-area churches and cathedrals , B and I were discussing this: “Were these built solely as religious places of worship or was there more at work here?”

Cathedrals/churches were commissioned by the aristocracy of the time. They were designed and built by the artistic aristocracy of the time too. While these soaring steeples and tall spires are definitely meant to inspire awe and evoke the greatness of the Lord Almighty, one cannot but help feel that at some level these are manifestations of the ids of the people behind these – either the aristocrats bankrolling them, or the artists responsible for the architecture and the stunning beauty of these places.

The Duomo in Milan

However, all of that is moot. The sense of grandeur and pure awe that one feels on viewing something like the Duomo in Milan make all this questioning of motivations academic. Evoking hushed reverence, the perfect grace of this place left me speechless.

In the spirit of the beautiful symmetry these places exhibit, I close with the same U2 song I started with.

The more you see, the less you know
The more you find out
as you go
I knew much more than I do now

More posts on the way as I process my diary and unscramble my thoughts.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Be Kind, Rewind

The flight now seems interminable. I’m looking at a row of seats next to me with screens flickering various stages of recent blockbusters. Ben Stiller is still running amok in museums while Arnold rises, buck-naked elsewhere. Staccato gunfire echoes from someone’s headphones that are way too loud. The steady hum of the jet makes you wonder “Don’t they build sound dampers into this damn thing?”

The end of a vacation is a time of ‘epic suckage’ (to use a recent hip expression I picked up from an acquaintance). Security checks, removing shoes and belts, metal detector passes. Things you grinned and bore with a song your lips on the way out here suddenly become onerous.

Every moment is fraught. “This may be the last time I drink coffee here.” (though, at the back of your mind, you know you’re going to come back. Soon.) Wistfulness sets in even before the trip is over. You look at photos in the tiny screen of a camera, trying to hold on to something that is slipping away, fast.

*sigh*. It’s time to stop fretting. Life as you have known it for years now awaits on the other side of the Atlantic. You try to switch off this feeling of dread by tuning in to the bizarre pleasures of The Hangover.

This was written on the flight out from Zurich to JFK after a most enjoyable 10-day vacation. More posts on the vacation itself coming soon. This was unfortunately the most well thought out of the paper posts from my diary, so this goes up first. Last-In-First-Out, stack-style.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tijuana, Baja California (Mexico)

Come to think of it, the process is Kafka-esque. You are working at the same job, in the same work designation doing the same kind of work. But at the magic three year mark, the US government decides you must be subjected to a scrutiny not just by someone in the immigration department, but also by someone necessarily outside the country, who then wants to go through all your information (again, since you already submitted it once and it was scrutinized and approved).

But all that was moot as I flew the length of the country to cross the border into Mexico. All so I could get a stamp on my passport to enter and leave the country as I please (till the next time this formality will be required, of course).

I’d heard a few horror stories about Tijuana, but it was as nondescript as any random small town in a developing nation. At least the parts I saw. Apart from two flashing police cavalcades at night, nothing in my time there indicated anything remotely dangerous about the place. But the restaurant I had lunch at had postcards for a number of “Gentlemen’s Club”s at the door. Let’s just say I am more used to seeing brochures for Leukemia “Team in Training” at such places.

There’s dust. Lots of it. Concrete and new construction commingles uncomfortably with rundown old buildings. There’s a statue of Lincoln in a roundabout, the largest one I’ve seen outside of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The Banamex in that square is the only bank where you can pay your visa fee. Imbibing monopoly economics lessons brilliantly, they charge $150 for a $131 visa fee.

The area outside the US Consulate is a hubbub of activity. The concept of appointments and time is long forgotten as people just jostle to get in line. Someone with a noon appointment can show up by 9 AM and be done before people who have earlier appointments.

As expected, there’s a host of small businesses that have sprung up to cater to the hundreds who walk through the halls of this in-demand institution. A dozen small shops sell “visa photos”, and provide form-filling services et al. A shanty next to the US Consulate offers to hold bags for the princely sum of $3. This is a boon since the Consulate won’t allow phones or electronics inside. But sharks lurk. Someone in line with me (whose cellphone refused to understand ‘roaming’) paid $5 per minute for an emergency call to his lawyer in the US.

No passport on me - it’s in processing at the Consulate for next-day pickup. No car as I walked across the border (it’s less time-consuming and there are less checks). What’s a bored, forced tourist to do in the birthplace of the Caesar salad?

The local mall provided for some entertainment and insight into Mexican consumption. (So many jewelry shops!). The local theater ran latest Hollywood films in English and Espanol. For me and another kindred soul in a similar soup, it came down to watching films I’d already seen or Fuerza G! in Spanish. Luckily we found Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaoh running (again in Spanish) in an IMAX theater nearby.  Feeling particularly adventurous, 35 minutes of sarcophaguses, Ramses and British archaeologists it was. In Spanish.

The next day wasn’t very different. But it was time to pick up my passport and the hour of departure was near. Resignedly, more lines and a gruff border post were negotiated. Unlike that fateful journey across the seven seas seven years ago, this time there was not as much a sense of excitement as a sense of weary relief.

Travel Aside

When you cross the US-Mexico border some 40-odd miles south of San Diego, the world changes. As you make a leap from the first world to the third something vital is different and you know it immediately. This manifests itself differently in different places. In Tijuana, it struck me forcefully at the Starbucks (two blocks from the US Consulate). My idea of Starbucks has evolved to that of a place with chatty tourists, solo wi-fi warriors, stray copies of The Stranger and monotonous iPod white earbuds. However, this place was buzzing with well-dressed PYTs hobnobbing with like-looking others, male and female. The vibe was more Paris cafe than border huckster and proved that there’s more to this place than met the eye.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games

Sprawling. I think this one word fits Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games to a T. It’s a meticulously researched  and richly textured work, taking on multiple story arcs. The main arcs weave through the city of Mumbai with tendrils in Singapore, Southeast Asia, touching upon Pune and pre-Partition Punjab in the process.

However, all that research is incidental, since good research isn’t just about facts and places. Chandra’s research leads him into the heads and hearts of the characters he describes. Ostensibly, the book is about a policeman Sartaj Singh and the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. However, the book is much more than that. It delves into the psyches of characters, major and minor, drawing them out with breathtaking insight. The book feels “lived in”, in the sense that the author knows and understands these people well. He knows their lives, loves and everything in between. He could probably tell you their favorite colors if asked. 

For me, the sudden flashes of insight in this book came at different points. One of them was his sketch of Katekar, Sartaj’s loyal constable. A vivid description of his life in a slum in Mumbai brings him to breathing, swearing life. The use of the four letter Marathi swear word “jh*$” (the f-word) is a good example. I’ve never heard it used after leaving Pune, and seeing it used in the book was a surprise. Yes, a pleasant one. It indicates the author cared enough to find out the vernacular Katekar inhabited, and wanted to use it for effect.

Another personal favorite was when Sartaj asks Kamble “Are you Buddhist?”, bringing years of caste history into sharp relief in a single, careless sentence. (Dalits converted to Buddhism to escape discrimination, following the lead of respected leader Babasaheb Ambedkar). Kamble launches into a diatribe about why he’s not one. It’s a cauldron, bubbling away below the suave womanizing exterior of the whip-smart fast-rising officer.

A good way to look at this book is not as a cinematic arc( though it does have a great film in it). It’s a great mini-series on the city of Mumbai. A set of characters who inhabit that metropolis, their lives, their stories, their loves and betrayals. The tangents bring breathing life to incidental characters and provide insight to a teeming world lurking just out of sight.

The flip side is that all that detail makes it overlong. I guess it depends on what you expect from it.

To use another analogy, if you can get off the straight Mumbai-Pune Expressway and use the old highway to do that journey for the millionth time, there are unexpected riches for the taking.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded forever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these, the spirit blooms.

-George Santayana

I’ve had ( and have ) a number of friends who have a tendency to whine.

In my experience, these whiners fall into two categories: “Life sucks.” (the Seinfeld argument: “Everything sucks!”) or “Why does this happen to me?!” (the Narcissus argument).

I generally used to fall into the second lot while I was younger. There’s a reason the phrase “angst-ridden teenager” exists. I probably lived that phase well into my twenties.

But things have changed since then. Maybe as you grow older, you do get less stupid. Maybe you grow up enough to stop sweating the details and seeing the downside of everything.

As RK used to advise me ( I translate from Hindi and paraphrase) “We’re made for bigger quests in life. Stop worrying about these small things." I never really made it to the big leagues, but not worrying about small things seems to work.

In movies, they show someone who’s going to die in a week or two. Then s/he sees the light, picks up the pieces of a wasted life and starts living life again. But is that really necessary? Can’t one stop worrying about life and actually start living it without lymphosircoma of the intestine leaving your life in the balance?

I’d like to hope so. Check back here to see if the experiment’s working.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Trying to put your arms around the world

On US-2, on the way to Lake Chelan.

This photo reminded me of Eddie Vedder’s brilliant cover of “Hard Sun”

A world full of possibilities. A big hard sun, and an even bigger sky. I wonder what Montana, Big Sky Country must be like.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Seen around Seattle

An open mind and a keen eye yields interesting observations:

- Graffiti on the embankment of the canal below the Montlake Bridge - “God of War” “May your hammer be mighty!” Que?

- Outside the Montlake Bike shop, a guy was loading a bike onto the bike rack on the back of his car. A common enough sight, except the car in question was a Porsche Boxster.

- Ever notice how, in this most germophobic of nations, people think nothing of smoking from the same joint? I’m simply aghast. Do weed smokers carry a bottle of mouthwash around to wash their mouth after sharing  a joint? Maybe dealers should sell a combo pack. I remember a smoker friend in India mentioning that 1 cigarette + 1 Menthol was a standard combo you got at paan shops.

- Bike rack in my apartment building parking lot: What’s a stroller doing there? Saw this not once, but twice. Does a couple actually ‘park’ the stroller there and carry the baby upstairs?

- Next to recycle bin for my apartment building: A pair of crutches. I’m sure a hospital or a Goodwill would have found some use for these. What a waste.

- Queen Sheeba in Capitol Hill. Ethiopian Restaurant. On a saturday night, four tables are occupied. All by Indians. Wow.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Top That

The Doctor Who revival 4 years back began promisingly enough. A joie de vivre marked the proceedings, and Christopher Eccleston made a fine Doctor. Everything about him was fun. He was rough around the edges without being too annoying. He was dashing in his own way in his leather jacket. And he had a great way of saying "fantastic!" that endeared him in my heart forever.

The show was something else. The revival worked wonders for the franchise because it was really well-written - first by Russell T. Davies and then a bevy of writers coming in to do individual stories. The acting was good - Eccleston was great,and Billie Piper as the Doctor's companion was quite competent. And, this is the clincher: Doctor Who has the capacity to regenerate, which gives the show flexibility in terms of changing out the actors.

After the first season, for whatever reason, they decided to do that, replacing Eccleston with David Tennant.

I was aghast. It seemed like change just for the sake of change, or for a contract dispute or for no good reason whatsoever. Eccleston was good! Why bother changing him?

However, I was proven wrong. David Tennant's acting is so sublime that it elevated the series to a completely different level altogether. His face and his whole body covey glee when things are at their most chaotic. And when things get serious, his mood and that of the whole episode changes on a dime. He is fierce and fearsome, and you don't want to be on the receiving end of that wrath. Sartorially, he defines new creative heights - canvas shoes (Chucks, no less) with a full suit and waistcoat. 

Again now, changes are afoot. There’s a new Doctor in the wings who’ll be unveiled at the end of this year. He’s younger, definitely not ginger and looks a bit too boyish to me.

Is he going to look credible staring down the Daleks and stopping whole armies of marauding aliens in their tracks? Will he continue the trend of rising stakes – better acting, better sartorial style and yes, more fun? I sure hope so.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Eye exam

The letters were big. They grew smaller, until his eyes were begging for mercy.

Then the lenses come on. "Does 1 look better than 2?" Change lens. "Now?". Change lens again. "Now?" "2 or 3?" .

Enough already. How bad was it? Couldn't they just give him the verdict so he'd be on his way?

That's it. His eyes were shot.  All those days of feeling too tired after work must have been because of this. Anyway, he was almost hitting the big 3-0. Time to add some geekiness to the visage?

As he sat there, he idly wondered what kind of frames he'd go for. Did he want thin wire frames, or even rimless glasses? A couple of his friends wore these and they didn't look half-bad. Or maybe he could try the really big, thick-framed glasses - the ones with horn rims like Ira Glass or that guy from Death Cab from Cutie. He wondered about the pain and overhead of wearing glasses - he was pretty lousy even with his sunglasses, forgetting them at various places only to scramble back to pick them up. Maybe contacts was a better way to go? But the idea of inserting plastic into his eyes made him shudder.

This time the doctor came in. The tests (which were first conducted by the assistant) continued. The letters went from readable to barely legible. 2 bled into Z and D into O into 0. It was a game of "fit the right lens", and he was losing. Badly.

"1". "No, 2 is clearer." "Can we try that again? I'm not quite sure." "I can't make out a single letter."

"Try. Give it your best shot."

*sigh* "..." <insert wild guess here>

"Very good."

?! Hm.

The exam comes to an end.

Doc: "It's like your eyes are refusing the glasses. Your eyesight is fine. You even managed to read some of the letters from the 20/15 test!"

All that speculation for nothing. He was slightly relieved - a drastic change to look and lifestyle averted.  

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dead books, tall tales

Buying used books has its own appeal. This generally lies in prowling through musty aisles and rifling through stacks of used books, usually in a nondescript shop in one of the quirkier neighborhoods of Seattle - Fremont, the University area or Capitol Hill. In Seattle, this usually also involves stepping over a cat or two.

The books themselves have their own stories to tell. I prefer "clean" books with no obvious signs of previous ownership, but the occasional random book with blemishes slips through. These can get interesting though.

My copy of The Money Game by Adam Smith has this on the inside title page:

XMas 1994

_____ & _______:

This year's investment classic from your parents (in-law). Read and prosper.

____ & _______

Wise words indeed - "Read and prosper".

When I bought The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Qureishi, I paid little attention to the fact that it was published by Penguin Italia. "Maybe it's an import". However, when I started reading it, out popped a receipt. 

Gelateria Brivido

Via Dei Pellegrini 1-3


It's a bill for 2500 Liras (that's 1.29 Euros as the receipt helpfully says). It's dated the 14th of September 2000 - that's 14-09-00 for you dd/ mm/ yy'ers. The web tells me that the Lira ceased being legal tender in 2002, replaced completely by the Euro.

It makes me think. What was I doing on the 14th of September 2000? It was a Thursday, meaning I was probably in college in India attending some kind of class or another.

This book's provenance just went from humdrum Barnes & Noble / Amazon to something altogether exotic. How did it end up in a used book store in Seattle? Was it an Italian student who bought it there, eventually ending up  in Seattle and selling the book while leaving? Or more likely, someone from Seattle on a summer trip to Europe? I can see him or her in Europe, taking in the sights of an altogether beautiful and alien continent, reading about an alien adjusting to a new and exciting world.

Dead books tell tall tales.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


It was the regular morning commute. He took a seat he generally didn't prefer - the first seat in the rear of the articulated bus next to the "bellows". It was invariably noisy there, distracting him from his music and reading.

She got on at the next stop. Cute. Black curly hair. She was wearing those glasses Tina Fey made famously cool on 30 Rock. Come to think of it, she looked a bit like Tina Fey. She sat on a cross seat on the opposite side from his. As the bus lurched its way onto the highway, she got up and sat next to him. She smelled of fresh citrus.

It was as if his brain had just shifted from cruise control to interstellar overdrive. "Is my hair OK?" "Does my breath smell?" "I think I forgot to put on deodorant in the morning." "What book is she reading?" "I think I should talk to her."

In a minute she noticed someone in the front of the bus she knew. Waves were exchanged. Space was found next to this friend. Next thing he knew, she was gone.

This piece was inspired by This American Life's episode 20 acts in 60 minutes. I was trying to write a piece that could be narrated on air, Ira Glass-style within two minutes. This piece is shorter, but, hey, the girl did leave kinda soon.