Archive for August, 2005|Monthly archive page

Rise and Shine? Not.

Today, the roomie & colleague & ride is at home, waiting for a new mattress to be delivered. Had to hitch a ride with the boss. The icing on the cake – the boss leaves for work at 6:30 AM so he can drop his kid off at school. He picked me up at around 6:45 AM. If you take gosh-awful daylight friggin’ savings, 5:45 AM. As you may have caught on, am most definitely NOT a morning person.

While waiting for the ride to arrive, I try reading. I have half-read books strategically stashed all over the house, so I can always reach for something, no matter where I am. I try Atwood’s Good Bones and Simple Murders. At some point, as I listlessly move about the house, I pick up Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Authors I find scintillating by moonlight, even twilight, fail to please at the crack of dawn.

Switch on the TV. I HATE watching TV in the morning. I detest all morning shows – filled with bright / cheerful types gushing on about whatever the hell it is they gush on about. Turn to cable. Pause for a while on FX – Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Are they kidding? At 6 in the morning? HBO – Mad City and a bunch of other movies that would make any self-respecting insomniac kill himself. What audience are they trying to cater to at that hour, I wonder. Am pretty sure that the ‘early to bed / early to rise’ crowd would be as interested in Mad City as the insomniacs and the am-drunkenly-just-about-making-it-back-home crowd.

During the ride, with whatever handful of neurons which are up & working at that hour, brief, very brief thoughts flit through the brain:

– Please God, please¸ no conversation

– Aah! Shiny things! Oooh – that’s the sun getting reflected off windows / glassy structures on them building thingees… Kinda psychedelic, really. Is this why the “morning people” like mornings?

– Is the sun this orange? Really? All the time?

– Why is there a traffic jam at this hour? On the “freeway”? Isn’t this the “debauched west”? Folks are supposed to be nursing hang-overs at this hour, not cheerily driving to work, or wherever the hell it is people go to at 7:00 in the morning…

Reach work. Cannot believe am actually at my desk by 7:40. It feels like I only just left. Did I leave at all? Oh yeah I did. I watched TV last night, didn’t I…

At 9, am still in that twilight zone between wakefulness & brain dead-ness. So I go down to Starbucks. Get myself a Vanilla Latte. Detest coffee (am a Chai person), but see that it has its uses. Coffee does not help. Just makes me feel full, and somewhat nauseous, as it always does. And I have the rest of the day to go! Yippee!

Prime time swearing, sex, violence, & tons of other goodies!

Just got HBO!!! Gave in to temptation, and succumbed to the 1/2 price scam… Have a feeling that I’ll not have the heart to cancel the service a few months from now, when the “deal” ends, but for the next few months, blissssssssssssss 🙂
I will continue later. Bill Maher & Larry David await…

Technophobe no more?

In the not too distant past, a number of us used to engage in this rather elaborate ritual. One would begin by taking a piece of paper, finding a pen, writing on the paper, and walking down to the post-office & paying the nice folks there to get this piece of paper delivered to some corner of the world. This crazy ritual was called ‘writing letters’, a practice I thought was now extinct. I was pleasantly surprised earlier this week, when I received two postcards and a letter – from a friend stuck in a picturesque little village in Bretagne. The only way she can reach the outside world is, well, by writing!

It gave me such a thrill to see an envelope addressed in a hand I could recognize. Ever since I moved to this country, the only folks who “write” to me are the cable guy, the gas guy, the electrcity & cell phone folks, and yeah, of course, the rowdy lot over at the credit card company. The only pleasure a visit to the mail room provides is the occassional more than usually ironic example of direct marketing gone wrong (a discount coupon from ChristianSingles.com tops the list at the moment, while an invitation to join the American Civil Liberties Union is possibly the spam I am the proudest of triggering). When I saw this innocent little envelope, I didn’t even wait to get home – I just tore it apart right there & read the whole 2 pages, or whatever, and had a goofy smile pasted on my face for the rest of the week. In fact, I showed off the postcards to everyone at work the next day (when you see the picture on the right, you’ll know why. My friend, temping as a guide, lives in this castle!)

I was sorely tempted to write back. Indeed, as late as 2001, I was still writing long letters (mostly during Economics lectures, with mad Dr.P believing I was furiously taking notes) and spending hundreds of rupees every year on stamps. I did use email, but not for pleasure. That sounds quite naughty, but the actual explanation is more mundane than you might expect. Email was for ex-classmates / distant cousins you didn’t care too much for. The truly special friends always received a letter. Email was for job applications, acquaintances, and the like…

I stopped writing letters after I started working. It was so much easier to type up something at the end of the day. The Haryana Postal Department also went a long way in building trust in email. Then of course, I realized that an email lets me rant on much more than a letter does. I am ashamed to admit it, but email lets me copy & paste stuff… Shameful, I know, but, when you’ve written something particularly witty, it feels like such a shame to not share it with as many friends as possible.

All this time, I never felt I was betraying the written word. After all, I could always go back. Email’s just a temporary phase. I can quit any time I want to. I just have to put my mind to it. Receiving an actual letter made me realize just how far deep I have gotten into this terrible habit. My friend invited me to ‘write’ back, even provided a snail mail address. What did I do? I emailed her back!!! Sends shivers down my spine even now, when I think about my disgusting deed.

I have been exposed for the hypocrite I am. Sure, I still carry on, pottering about with a fountain pen (adventures of my attempts to buy a bottle of ink reserved for a later post). I may rant against technology and curse all computers. But come high noon, when I’m faced with a write-or-type situation, what do I do? I fold, like the lilly-livered ex-technophobe I am!

Perhaps there is hope for someone like me. If I start again, slowly, with postcards perhaps, I can still teach myself to write again. It will be challenging – I will actually have to think about what I wish to communicate before I put pen to paper. I will have to find my way around a world without backspace, ctrl x, ctrl c & ctrl v. I will have to remember to buy stamps, dig out snail mail addresses of all my friends… And of course, I must steel myself for the heart-break – when no one writes back to you, it feels so much worse than when they don’t email back. Friends will curse me for putting them on the spot…others’ll laugh at another example of my anachronism, USPS will make a lot of money… but surely, there’s hope?

I have to believe I can redeem myself yet. Today, it’s email, tomorrow, what if I let this mania grow and God forbid, stop subscribing to magazines & newspapers, just make do with reading online? Or worse, trade in my library card for some e-book membership? Quelle horreure! Vive la France, for continuing to have villages without even a dial up connection. Were it not for a bunch of way-behind-the-times villagers in Bretagne, I’d have never had a chance to save my soul. Thank you, good people of Achères-la-Forêt – we need more of you in this world.

Jumping through invisible hoops, or making friends

S is one of my closest friends in Dallas. When I think back, the first time I ever thought, “Hmm, a kindred soul”, was when I found out that we both love Sting. Then there was nothing for a few months. This was followed by what is often one of the best phases in the process of establishing a friendship – a series of realizations that you have a number of things in common.

I am a boring person. But I’ve always thought of myself as a unique sort of boring person, with esoteric tastes in everything from food to movies. So it always feels amazing to come across another soul who shares even some of them.

From Sting, S & I went on to discover we also loved off-beat movies, BBC documentaries, cold weather (we’re fellow aliens in Texas, surrounded by idiots who jog shirtless at 3:00PM when they’re not driving around in convertibles), discussing half-baked theories of history & spirituality, hogging at Madras Pavilion (essentially tasty food cooked by someone else), laziness…To top it all, we are fellow insomniacs.

I believe that each of us has a few hoops, some critical, that we hold out for folks to jump through, before we start thinking of them as “friends”. With some friends, like S, the progression is clear. With others, it’s a mystery, how one proceeds from “I wouldn’t kill myself if I had to spend a ½ hour that person” to “This is the one person who can help me snap out of my Dumbledore-blues.”

Like so much else, friendship appears to be fraught with risks – an extremely complex process that can fall apart at any instant, and for the most trivial reasons. To continue with the S example – if he knew of my LOTR / Potter twin obsessions before he knew of my preference for overcast days, and if I knew of his sports mania before I let him convert me into a Tarantino fan, would we be the sort of friends we are today? There appears to be some sort of invisible threshold that, once crossed, suddenly makes us think of differences as endearing, rather than as annoying. Pain-in-the-backside type behaviors (inability to talk of little else during basketball season, waiting outside Barnes & Noble in the middle of the night to buy a kid’s book, health-food crazes, an interest in the politics of Zaire & nominations to the Supreme Court (honestly, who gives a damn?!), and so much else) suddenly become “that’s-what-makes-them-special” type qualities.

The one encounter that bumps people up from acquaintance to friend is the weirdest thing, though. Don’t remember what it was with S. With other friends, it ranges from a shared horror of amusement park rides to a single shopping spree where a now-close friend & I discovered a taste for things that we don’t ever see ourselves using, but find them irresistible all the same.

When I think about my friendships, the one feeling that’s common across all of them – ‘Who’d have thought?’

What started me on this maudlin train of thought? S is leaving Dallas. He’s moving to a better job in a colder place. The best of both worlds. Am very happy for him, and look forward to a free place to crash when I feel a need to escape this unbearable heat. Here’s to you, friend! Dallas will be drearier without you. But here’s hoping that you find another Sting fan or another Lakers-hater in your new city.

Mind games for the sleepless II

Am in the process of attempting a number of changes to my life-philosophy (make a grandiose statement like that & you’re tempting fate, but we’ll ignore that for the moment, and you will see very soon why am asking you to do just that). One of them is to try to be more positive. I realized from Swami‘s comment that perhaps tweaking my approach to the list I started yesterday was called for. Instead of feeling bad about methods that clearly don’t work, why not rebrand it (a la ‘global struggle against violent extremism’) to ‘What NOT to do if you’re trying to fall asleep’. So, here goes (the first two are Swami’s contributions):

WARNING: THESE METHODS HAVE BEEN PROVEN TO BE EXCEEDINGLY HARMFUL TO A PEACEFUL NIGHT’S SLEEP. THEY ALSO HAVE BEEN PROVEN TO INSINUATE THEMSELVES INTO SUSCEPTIBLE MINDS, SO READ FURTHER AT YOUR OWN PERIL.

1. Counting sheep (being unable to count above 400, this is a little challenging for me personally)
2. Matching letters of the English Alphabet with names of cities and/or countries (haven’t ever tried this, but see the possibilities)
3. Thinking about what you did that day / two days ago / 5 years ago / 25 years ago
4. Thinking about what you should have done yesterday, etc.
5. Thinking about what you want to do tomorrow / two days from now / 5 years from now / 25 years from now
6. Thinking about what you HAVE to do tomorrow, etc.
7. Making top 5 lists of any sort (‘all time favorite’ lists start off innocently enough – top 5 books or movies are the usual culprits. This can rapidly degenerate into top 5 books featuring English Butlers, or planes crashing in the desert, or the character (fictitious, but of course!) you wish the most was in bed with you at the moment (it’s all downhill from there))
8. Making bottom 5 lists of any kind (the worst 5 Tamil movies, Hindi copies of Hollywood movies, the worst 5 road trips you’ve ever been on, the 5 biggest regrets of your life till date (this one is particularly disheartening, as you’ll find you that you have more regrets competing for the top spots than Indians trying to get accepted into an IIT or IIM))
9. How much you hate your boss (anger never solved anything, & this holds for insomnia, too)
10. And the absolute WORST thing you can do when you’re trying to fall asleep – playing ‘Six Degrees of Separation’. If you don’t know this game, you still have a chance. Save your soul, and close this browser window, NOW! If you like living dangerously, here’s how the game is played: Pick an actor, any actor. Pick another actor, and try to connect them within 6 mov(i)es. Kevin Bacon is the worst. You can connect Mr. Bacon with practically EVERY actor on this planet (alive & dead) in 6 moves, including Tamil ones. Trust me, I’ve tried this. This is a game that looks like fun, and it is, at first. I got hooked to this after some one mentioned it in an episode of Seinfeld, I think. I was so happy in the early days – proud of my knowledge of Hollywood movies, intrigued by the twists and turns, challenging myself with more difficult connects at each try… After a week, I started to wander around in a haze, my hair in wild disarray, eyes red, mumbling movie names to myself, expressions varying within the limited range of i-know-this, gotcha!, and damn-damn-damn! It took me weeks of self-administered therapy to snap out of this. But even now, I dare not think of this, as I know that the monster will sieze me again. When I read my first Harry Potter, I felt an immediate kinship with the people from the wizarding world, all fearing “he who must not be named”. I knew how they felt like, having lived for years in the shadow of the “game that must not be named”. (Tonight am a goner.)

So, there you have it folks. My list of the worst cures for insomnia. I am positive that I’ve missed out vital, equally unpromising methods. I would love to hear from Manoj, a self-proclaimed insomniac. I am confident that there are experimental would-be-cures that are really anti-cures being attempted in all corners of the world even as I type . And that’s the most consoling thought I’ve been able to come up with on this rather painful subject. I may be awake, but there is definitely at least one other person in this world, who’s also twisting & turning. No, that would be the second most consoling thought. The winner – I may be re-examining my life at 4 AM. But at least, I’m in bed. The poor slobs in Europe are already at work, and poorer slobs in Tokyo or Australia are preparing for yet another sleepless night.

Mind games for the sleepless

I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Oh, I fall asleep. Just wake up promptly after an hour, and twist & toss the rest of the night. I thought this line wasn’t supposed to come up for another 40 years or so. But then again, I always knew that ‘Oracle’ was never going to be the metier where I would make my first million.

Wondering just what will make me that first million is one half of the trouble, the other half is disappointment. I will never be a half-starved, fainting virgin who smokes stinky volcanic fumes, and delivers cryptic, and completely useless content, and probably faints away even before she can get that out properly! And after doing such a smashingly bad job of it, gets worshipped by everyone starting from the Emperor. What a job! In our modern society, we don’t have a use for these ‘women of foresight’… We’ve opinion polls, Gartner, and Dataquest instead. Progress & evolution are overrated (the Kansas Board of education will agree with me on the last – we’re still negotiating over the first).

Too much on the mind. Unable to take a break from obsessing about myself, my future, or lack thereof. Have already alienated vast droves of friends (alright, the 3 who bother to read my emails) with my endless whining. Frankly, even my parents can’t take it anymore. They just wish to get off the phone, I think… So they can sweet talk someone into marrying me – the job of consoling me will be that someone else’s duty.

It would be an exagerration to claim I’ve tried everything. But here are a few things I have tried:
a) ‘pursuing a healthy activity’, or a punishing, long walk (well, I did walk for a whole hour) – goal: to tire myself out
b) ‘twice, in one day – am I up to it?’ or stuffing myself at dinner – goal: to see if the blissful state of sleepiness I ascend to after lunch may be reached again, when I can actually do something about it
c) ‘killing brain cells’ or late night TV – goal: to lull the brain into a temporary state of coma
d) ‘the midnight nettoyage’ or taking a long, warm shower in the middle of the freaking night – relaxing (quite like it – love the sense of knowing I don’t have to get out of the nice warm water NOW to get to work), but certainly not sleep-inducing
e) ‘return to childhood’ or the warm glass of milk before going to bed – makes me feel great, I congradulate myself on my ‘wholesome’, ‘nutritious’ food choices (just the thought to assuage guilt from a day spent stuffing myself with chalupas, a variety of fried stuff (with and without cheese), topped off with ice-cream or Coke (regular – do not touch the Diet stuff) or both))

Result: am still here, tapping away at the darn key board.

Trading skills

When I was in the 1st standard, my Dad was transferred to Delhi. It was the middle of the school year, and we had to scramble to get me admitted into a school. That was my first brush with the ‘entrance test’. I applied to two schools. One of them asked me to write the numbers from 1 to 400. I recall coming home and expressing a degree of surprise – if you knew how to count till 100, surely, that was sufficient? The other school asked me to spell the word ‘hundred’. I did not get accepted into that school. I still remember coming home, and spelling out h-u-n-d-r-e-d to my Mom, proud of the new word I’d learned that day. The kind teacher at the second school had taken the trouble to teach me the correct answer.

Writing out numbers from 1 to 400 was the last time I did well at a ‘quant’ test. As a banker’s family, we’ve moved to new towns, new homes, new schools every once in a while. I’ve taken more than a fair share of ‘entrance’ tests and interviews. When applying to Union Christian (from where I eventually completed my 12th std.), I was asked to solve a bunch of problems, that I promptly bungled, and asked to write an essay (on a ‘rainy day’), in which I raved and ranted on for three pages or perhaps even more (Mrs. Ranjini Mathew, the lady who graded my paper, and my soon to be English teacher, told me that vital to the art of writing an essay, was knowing when to stop).

So here I was – alarmingly lacking in quantitative skills, but apparently not as big a dunce at language… My Dad convinced the Principal, that yes, I was weak in Math, but with their excellent training, he was confident I would improve. Mr. Vergheese took a chance. That should have taught him a few lessons in the futility of gambling.

For the next two years, I went through abject misery, writing not one but two papers in Math every year. (My school fell under the ‘Matriculation Board’ unique to Tamil Nadu. This possibly the ONLY board in the world that insists on putting its students through a seemingly endless list of core subjects – English I, English II, Math I, Math II, Hindi I, Hindi II (or Tamil I, Tamil II – as the case may be), Biology, Physical Sciences, History, Geography – that’s 10 exams, each taken thrice a year!)

The only thing that kept me going was the light at the end of the 10th Std. tunnel – the ‘Pure Science’ group that my school fortunately offered. When choosing subjects for 11th & 12th, my father (an optimist, if ever there was one), actually attempted to talk me into taking Math. He still nurtured hopes of his child becoming an ‘Engineer’. It did not take me too long to disabuse him of his illusions about my ability to add two and two and consistently arrive at the answer of four.

Suddenly, I felt liberated, surrounded by 11 others (there were only 12 of us whose fear of Math proved greater than our fear of Mrs. Benzie, the dragon lady who taught Biology), all of whom didn’t even notice the irony of Math being left out of a group that was supposedly ‘Pure Science’. For those uninitiated in the arcane nomenclature in use in Madras High Schools of that time – subjects that fell under ‘Pure Science’ were Zoology, Botany, Physics and Chemistry.

I was happy. At 17, even stop-gap solutions have a way of appearing to be permanent fixes. Well, to cut a long story short – Math has persistently dogged my steps, despite multiple attempts to run away. Every time I get tested for one more thing, there’s that quant section again – masters degrees, jobs, life…

What got me started on this trip down memory lane? Yesterday, I took a test, and big surprise, bungled the Math section. I’ve done a lot of soul searching in the weeks running up to the test. From detached curiosity to abject martyrdom, I’ve been through every mood. I have asked myself a vast number of piercing questions – ranging from the spiritual to the petty:

– Does God NOT mean to give some people the gift of numbers?

– Was I reading a novel in some corner when God did in fact hand out math skills?

– Is there a God? If not, who can I blame for my stupidity? Will the party responsible please stand up?

– What degenerative disease of the brain makes my neurons turn to mush whenever there’s the slightest talk of cylinders being filled or emptied at a certain constant rate? How then, do these very same cells spring right back to life when the Booker Long List is released?

This morning, I think I finally came up with a solution. Skills should be made into securities that can be freely traded, preferably on a barter basis. How awesome would it be to exchange some of my reading speed for a little ‘adding’ speed? This way, it wouldn’t always be the folks with money who, well, have it all, or could have it all. If not trade your skills, then at least, you should have the ability to shore up your skills for a rainy day. I am sure that over 27 years, I could have, a tiny bit at a time, saved up enough to save my life yesterday.

While we’re at it, why not give emotions the same status too? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to put away some self-esteem from your cocky days for days when you want nothing more than to believe that you’re worth something? Or store away some of the feeling from days when everything seems to make sense for those when nothing does? It would simply be a more efficient use of resources. Why isn’t a killer business model like this already out there?