Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘reflections’ Category

436. Feel-good, feeling good

In Aging, reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on June 13, 2019 at 12:09 pm

from Friday’s Tunnel, written and illustrated by John Verney

It is a grey weekday morning. Rain is forecast, with gusty winds and temperatures 20°F below what is usual for mid-June weather, but so far it is pleasantly cool, overcast, and expectantly still. The street, too, is still, now that most of the students have left for the summer, with only the occasional dog-walker dawdling in front of the house with his cell-phone, studiously indifferent to his companion marking my newly seeded strip of lawn, and a car going by maybe once an hour, if that, and at a snail’s pace.

Yesterday I pruned the bushes out back, inexpertly and overzealously. Now the clippings lie in heaps on the terrace steps, and before the rain I ought to pull on gumboots and tick-proof clothing to dump wheelbarrow-loads of them in the copse at the end of the garden. All such a joy and a luxury now that my grades are finally in and I am officially on summer break. But instead, a lady of leisure, I have donned an old dressing-gown of Andrew’s and gone back to bed (after a breakfast of oatmeal and strawberries) to read and write. Rain looms, brush clippings beckon, and a clipboard with its fresh notepad awaits my long To Do list, but it will all just have to wait; I’m feeling good.

In ten days I will turn 65—or complete 65, as we say more accurately in Indian English—officially a Senior Citizen. I wonder, will I command greater respect, inspire pity, or simply become irrelevant? Will I cease to strive or strive with all the more urgency? Will I slow down and count my blessings, or set myself demanding new goals to keep mind and body active? I’m noticing the aches and pains in my joints, especially my thumbs, the decisiveness with which exhaustion dictates my bedtime at the end of the day, the lag before the word I want comes to me. How much more time do I have to set my house in order, to write, even to think?

As a young smart-alec, I routinely mocked and dismissed “feel-good movies” as sentimental, without any critical edge, opiates synthesized simply to attract the largest possible audience (and, of course, box-office profits) and turn their minds to mush. Yet at the same time—and I didn’t seem to notice the contradiction here—I personally avoided horror films, thrillers and tragedies. Life was horrific enough, I argued, with more than enough misery to go around; why pay to subject oneself to even more? I preferred to lose myself in romantic comedies—why? Because they made me feel good.

In an email a few years ago, Barbara, an old friend, made an observation about me  which I continually find myself returning to and mulling over; she had noticed that I didn’t want to do things I didn’t want to do. Although this may appear tautological, in fact it goes right to the heart of things. My attitude toward the feel-good movie—and perhaps to feeling good in general—is of a piece with Barbara’s penetrating insight. There are things I need to do that I must tackle with a will, whether or not I want to do so. Afterwards there will be time to relax and feel good in the knowledge that the work has been accomplished. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing things that make one feel good, as long as it isn’t at the expense of doing what has to be done. And it is downright counter-productive to make oneself, or others, feel bad about wanting to feel good.

I’ve looked up and it’s already raining, hard. That’s put paid to any hopes of garden clean-up today. Andrew’s just come in—he’s already tackling the To Do list I haven’t even made yet—and I’ve told him guiltily that I am about to get up and at ‘em. So, signing off to face the day but feeling defiantly glad that I made the feel-good decision to go back to bed. Old and obstinate and feeling good about it!

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

 

Advertisements

434. Friends from Way Back

In Books, people, reflections, Stories, United States on May 26, 2019 at 9:59 am

In Chinua Achebe’s modern classic, Things Fall Apart, the hypermasculine, highly-strung protagonist Okonkwo has a best friend and agemate, Obierika, who is the only person who can speak home truths to him without making him fly into a rage. They are both well-placed, well-respected family men, but Okonkwo, bull-headed and defensive, is perpetually falling afoul of the community because of his uncontrollable temper, while Obierika is a much more deliberate, thoughtful man, with a wry sense of humor. Even though he is the stereotypical strong silent type, Okonkwo will regularly go over to Obierika’s place where they may share kola nut and palm wine and sit quietly for a while, until Okonkwo blurts out what’s on his mind, or his friend raises the subject more delicately and then gives Okonkwo a piece of his. In Igbo society back at the turn of the twentieth century, agemates had gone through the circumcision rituals together in adolescence; having shared that arduous coming-of-age experience, there was little they could hide from each other ever after.

As I get older, the people in my life who have known me since childhood and youth get fewer but all the more precious. Yesterday old friends visited who go all the way back with our family. The parents were good friends of my parents, who met them on the IIT campus in Kharagpur in 1955 when they were still newlyweds and I was just six months old and “still crawling”, as Mona remembered yesterday, visiting us with her daughter Ginny on her 92nd birthday. Mona’s son Jim, just a little older than me, was my playmate, and when our families miraculously crossed paths again in the U.S. after having lost touch with each other for fifteen years, we took up the friendship as if it had never been interrupted. By now each of them had had another child, and the two daughters were also agemates whose lives proceeded to take parallel tracks. Fast-forward 33 years, and Mona and Bajirao attended my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, bearing the ceremonial cake. Like my parents, they had a mixed marriage, Bajirao coming from the same part of the country and the same community as Dad, and Mona, like Mum, a foreign wife in early post-Independence India, though Mona was American and Mum English. Bajirao was the first to pass away, nearly nine years ago, and as my sister Sally and I drove back in the snow from his wake, Sally pointed out that our friends had shown us the way we, as fellow half-and-halves, might honor the passing of our parents in a foreign country. At Dad’s memorial both Jim and Ginny spoke eloquently, and Jim’s heartfelt words for our father brought tears to his family’s eyes as they no doubt remembered their own. Now, after our families’ lives have been intertwined for nearly 65 years, there is little that we can’t share with each other.

This is Old Home weekend for us. Today we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our dear friend Michael, Andrew’s best friend from eighth grade on, sharer with him of teenage exploits of all kinds, who now lives in New Mexico and is driving down to us from Maine where he has just scattered his parents’ ashes by the ocean. Michael and I go way back, too, back to 1970 and my very first day at Brookline High, a new immigrant entering an entirely foreign school system mid-year. I took the first joyride with Michael and his then-girlfriend Laura the day they got their drivers’ licenses, an important American rite of passage, and when I met Andrew it turned out that he and Michael were best friends and that they had built a treehouse together, a dream of a treehouse in which we three shared many happy hours and which helped us all survive high school (see TMA#4, The Tree House). Later in the decade, Andrew and I drove out to New Mexico in our 1950 International Harvester milk truck (which Andrew had bought at the same time and from the same man who sold Mike a 1964 Triumph TR-4 sports car) and lived with Michael in Albuquerque for nearly a year, sharing another defining period of our lives. His parents retired to Portland, Maine, so as they grew older, Michael made the pilgrimage Back East to visit them more and more frequently, and we got together almost every time. Once he brought his parents to visit us in Amherst, where his father had attended “Mass Aggie,” as UMass, then the state agricultural college,was called, and he pointed out some of his old haunts. We gathered to toast his parents’ on their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrated landmark birthdays with them, and attended Mike’s father Pete’s funeral. Pete, who managed the farm and greenhouse on the Brookline estate where Andrew’s family rented a house, was Andrew’s first employer, and later, for a few months after college when I worked at the same greenhouse, he was my employer too. The last long car ride Mike’s mother Velma took was down to Amherst with him to attend Andrew’s father’s memorial, and we went up to Maine to dear Velma’s funeral just before my own mother passed away. This weekend I look forward to the three of us sitting out back just hanging out, Andrew and Michael agemates from way back, both men of few words, and for once I think I will quiet my chatter and be content to just be.

Here’s Jimmie Rodgers singing My Old Pal. Thinking of all my old pals with love and gratitude.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

 

418. J is for Journey

In blogs and blogging, Books, Family, Immigration, postcolonial, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 13, 2019 at 1:22 am

I have just received the sad news that dear Nana, my paternal uncle, just two years younger than my father, has passed away in India. He was the last of my seven uncles to complete this life’s journey, four on my father’s side, three on my mother’s. Nana was a high-court judge, who commuted to work by train on Mumbai’s fantastically busy locals for years, long after most people retire. One day, during catastrophic monsoon flooding, he went to work but didn’t return. He was in his eighties by now, mind you, and the family were beside themselves with worry. Nearly 20 hours later he called from a family member’s house many miles away. He had had to get off the train and walk for hours in chest-deep water.

In 2007, the year he turned 80, when my father was 82, Nana came to visit, with Tarakaki my aunt, and their 13-year-old grandson Prathamesh. In all the years Dad had lived out of India, Nana was only the second of his seven siblings to visit him, and Dad was overjoyed. He waited on him hand and foot and delighted in serving him fresh, local corn-on-the-cob, which Nana loved. After dinner, they would sit side-by-side, reading the newspaper—they were both avid readers—thoroughly content.

The last time Dad had travelled back to India was in 1996, the year my nephew Tyler was born. On his previous journey back, 12 years earlier, he had missed his first grandchild’s birth, Nikhil having arrived a couple of weeks before he was expected; this time he was determined to return in good time, so as not to miss this second birth. Before returning, though, he was able to participate in the celebration of his brother Nana’s grandson’s second birthday. As it turned out, it was his last trip to India. He was 72 by then, and India, especially the cities, had changed quite a bit since 1984. Dad was deeply shaken by the whole experience and when he returned he said that it would be his last visit. He never fully explained why, but said that it was the noise and the crowds and the pace of life, and the pollution. He had taken a videocamera with him to film the family and when he returned we were eager to see what he had recorded. To our disappointment, the screen was completely black. “What happened?” I asked, with dismay.
“Shhh, listen,” he said, impatiently, as he did when I made gratuitous comments while he was watching TV; “Can you hear the bird singing?”
It turned out that he had risen in the dark to sit quietly on the back verandah to record a bird that sang before dawn.

I kept asking Dad if he would return to India with me, promising to take him directly from the airport down to his peaceful family home; he shook his head decisively.
“But don’t you miss your family?” I asked insensitively.
“Of course, I do,” he replied, annoyed that he needed to explain to me at all. “But I have made my life outside India. If I thought about how much I missed my brothers and sisters all the time, I would only be miserable all the time. How can one live like that?”

◊◊◊◊◊

Reading, my lifelong passion, is, happily, essential to my profession as well; and transcontinental journeys feature centrally in many, many works of postcolonial literature. “The Third and Final Continent,” the last story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Interpreter of Maladies, has always been my favorite. In it, an Indian man arrives in America in 1969 at 36 years old to start a job at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had left India to study in England five years before, right after cremating his mother. Then he had returned to India briefly, to get married, before leaving again for the States. For the first six weeks he rents a room in the house of an ancient, idiosyncratic old woman, who, despite her crotchetiness, becomes family of a kind. When his wife receives her green card she joins him, almost a stranger, since they had been married only a few days before he had left for America. They get to know each other, alone in this new country. With her, he makes a home in the States, has a son, and grows old. The old woman dies, “the first death I mourned in America.” All the rest of the elders in India die too. This country is his third and final continent. It is a quiet, sad story, but it always touches me deeply. It ends like this:

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the last. Still, there are times when I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

◊◊◊◊◊

Dad’s journey, Nana’s journey, each long and noble. Both were highly intelligent, independent-minded men, but also family men. Both had two children and two beloved grandchildren. Both had strong, loving, highly capable wives who took care of business every day so that they had time to dream a little. I don’t know if Dad was amazed and bewildered by the ground he had covered in his lifetime, but whenever I think of it, I certainly am. Everything was harder then; tickets could not be booked with the click of a computer key; you had to go and stand in line for hours. Take-out could not be ordered carelessly if you didn’t feel like cooking; you couldn’t afford it, and even when you could, you wouldn’t dream of wasting your hard-earned money on it. That money he saved for his and my mother’s old age, and to pass on to us when the time came. But now the time has come and he is no longer with us in person. His journey, this stage of it, at least, is complete, and he has passed the torch to the next generation.

Rest In Peace, dear Nana-kaka.
Heartfelt thanks to our parents’ generation.

 

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

408. Every Light in the House Burnin’

In Books, Family, Immigration, people, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on March 24, 2019 at 12:42 pm

I have a clear memory of my Brookline High classmate Amy Saltzman visiting me a couple of years after high school in my college dorm; not the visit itself—that remains hazy—but one piece of extremely useful information that she gave me, which I have put tried to put into practice ever since. Amy was an all-round genius, and a science wiz in particular, so I asked her whether, from the point of view of electricity usage, it was worthwhile to turn off electric lights if they were only going to be turned back on again a little while later. She confirmed that it was worthwhile, even if it was only for a minute or so, vindicating my father in his continual reminders to turn the lights off whenever we left a room.

I’ve just looked up this question again, to make sure that what Amy had told me was in fact correct, but I had no reason to do so back then; you see, I trusted her implicitly. And yes, current wisdom backs up hers of nearly 50 years ago. Here’s the scoop: apparently the slight surge of power when turning lights on is not considered significant in comparison with the energy savings. It’s always better to turn off modern lights if leaving for more than a minute.

Recently it struck me how much I rely unthinkingly on passing advice from friends and family in almost everything I do. Just yesterday I had an argument with Andrew about leaving milk out. He thinks it’s fine to leave a milk jug out for several hours, while I obsessively return it to the fridge as soon as it has been used. I told him that our old friend Victor Manfredi had once informed me, in urgent tones, that it was unsafe; as I had with Amy, I trusted him implicitly, and made sure to follow his advice from then on. But yesterday, to make sure, I looked it up; what I found confirmed Victor’s admonitions: Milk should never be left out at room temperature.

I am indebted to dear ones for so many more things I do every day. Mum passed on the advice of her mum: When cooking, clean up as you go. Mum’s eagle eye and acute sense of smell force me to notice dust everywhere it settles and to discern any food or drink going “off” in the fridge; Dad, bless his heart, used to drive me crazy with his repeated reminders to shake the orange juice carton before I opened it, and his example reminds me to water the orchids on the same day every week, exactly as written in the instructions. My mother-in-law Anna called forks, knives, and spoons that had not been used during a meal “sunbeams”, because they didn’t have to be washed. Uncle Ted was frustrated beyond measure when I kept the tap running while I rinsed dishes, wasting precious and expensive hot water. Maureen couldn’t bear it when I left washed dishes in the drainer without putting them away. Eve advised me to use oregano sparingly, since it can be overpowering; a little goes a long way. Thyme, on the other hand, can be used generously. Andrew, teaching me how to drive, told me to keep a long focus in general, but to shift to a short focus and back as needed; also, to maintain a distance from the car in front of me of as many car lengths as miles per hour in multiples of ten. All these I follow religiously to this day (except, I confess, for putting the dishes away; it’s all I can do to get them washed).

Friends and family guide me in the care of myself and my affairs, and even in the words and phrases I use. My cousin Kalyani taught me how to tie a sari safely and efficiently (See TMA 154, Saraswati and Sari-wearing). Sabine taught me, by example, to deal with mail as soon as it arrives rather than adding it to the pile and leaving it for later (full disclosure: this I am still learning). Cousin Lesley reminded me to slow down and not to work myself into a frenzy trying to fit too many visits a day into my infrequent trips to England. Uncle Ted always insisted on getting us out for a “brisk country walk” at every available opportunity, and Dad warned me of the increasing danger, as one gets older, of giving way to inertia (See TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself). Fab and Brill, exclamations from the 60s and 80s respectively, are a part of my vocabulary thanks to Lesley; Nikhil has contributed “It is what it is”; and Sartaz, Inshallah, which reminds me that very little is actually in my control, no matter how much I might wish otherwise.

There are so many more people whose words and example have become part of me. Let me close by returning to my father, and to Mr. Jacob, Angela’s dad in British writer Andrea Levy’s first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’. Like Levy’s own father, who came to England from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush in 1948, and like my own, who sailed to England from India on the P&O steamship Maloja that very same year, Angela’s dad had the immigrant’s lifelong habit of thrift. When he came home from work to a houseful of women, “he’d chastise us with, ‘Every light in the house burnin’, if he saw a light on in a room that nobody was in.”  Heartfelt gratitude to all three fathers, real and fictional, and Rest In Peace, Andrea Levy (1956-2019).

Andrea Levy in 2010. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Tell Me Another(Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

407. Inner Light

In Nature, reflections, seasons, Stories on November 24, 2018 at 5:33 pm

It has been nearly four months now since we moved, and every day is still a surprise. By mid-November, after a succession of cold, blustery days, the deciduous trees around the house had lost almost all their leaves. I emerged from the bedroom one morning to find shafts of light streaking into places I had never seen lit up before. The leaves of the potted plants we had brought in before the first frost had been looking dull, but now they were glowing; and, I was surprised to find, so was I. 

It’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it, that as the days grow shorter, the mornings and afternoons gloomier, and the shadows longer, there should actually be more light slanting into the house? As we were turning toward the darkest time of the year, I had been anticipating a season of hibernation and bracing myself to face it. But I had been wrong. Now that the trees were bare and the sun low in the sky, there was new light coming in everywhere, in unexpected places.

In just four weeks we will come around to the winter solstice, a cold, dark, snowy time when we will have to hunker down and bundle up day and night to conserve heat; but also a time to turn inward and discover that inner light.

 

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

404. Colo(u)rs

In Family, Music, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on October 22, 2017 at 5:43 pm

In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, set in the aftermath of slavery, the protagonist Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs (“Baby Suggs, Holy” when she was a lay preacher teaching newly freed people to love themselves), having lost just about everyone she had ever loved, gave up on people, particularly whitepeople, and spent her last days contemplating colors, one color at a time. She spent a long time on yellow.

The colors in my father’s oil paintings are rich and warm, the watercolors luminous, filling every square inch of the canvas. Migmar always brought him flowers because he loved them so much. “He is like a woman,” she would say every time, full of wonder at his passion for them. Even when he no longer had the energy to paint, he continued to derive great pleasure from just drinking them in. Taking scraps from his art studio out to the trash last week, I found a list of colors, probably a shopping list for oil paints. There were also pages and pages of elaborate color-mixing formulae and charts, bringing home to me all over again how much colors had meant to him.

I love colors too, but being a person who has derived my greatest pleasure from words, I enjoy rolling their names off my tongue (and the English spelling rolls best): Prussian blue, chrome yellow, rubine red, Havana lake, burnt umber, raw sienna, jet black, carmine. Alert to intertextuality, I mentally reference writers from Aldous Huxley (Crome Yellow) to Toni Morrison, The Rolling Stones to Donovan. Here’s the Mexican folk song  De Colores, a celebration of Nature, freedom, and unity in diversity (Spanish and Engish lyrics here).  And Donovan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven, which, belated Hippie that I am, I continue to love despite the fact that it was coopted in an advertisement for make-up.

Colour in sky, Prussian blue
Scarlet fleece changes hue
Crimson ball sinks from view
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Colour sky, Havana lake
Colour sky, rose carmethene
Alizarin crimson
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Can I believe what I see
All I have wished for will be
All our race proud and free
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)

Carmine.

Words need not replace things-in-themselves. Sometimes I too feel like taking to my bed and simply contemplating colours, slowly, deliciously, one at a time. But there is work to be done, and I’m not dead yet. In these times, when the light of freedom is being dimmed all over, colours are falling out of favor. Time to celebrate them all the more. In the meantime, I can still sing, mix, and continue to dream, in glorious color.

Carmine.

 

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

398. This day . . .

In reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Work, writing on May 24, 2017 at 3:48 pm


This day is the first day of the rest of your life, proclaims that 1960s poster once plastered ubiquitously on college dorm walls across the country and intoned, infuriatingly, by any number of 1970s self-help gurus and popular culture figures from John Denver to The Walking Dead. But being banal doesn’t make it untrue; quite the contrary.

Every spring, as I teach my last class of the year, and again a couple of weeks later, when I turn in my students’ final grades, I tell myself: This day is the first day of the rest of your summer. Make the most of it, start as you mean to go on. Walk and write daily, wrap up long-postponed and unfinished business, work steadily to make inroads into those large, looming tasks that take time to complete, and have plenty of fun: take trips to visit friends and family, thrift-store shop to your heart’s content, and do a whole lot of entirely extraneous reading (what Andrew used to call, in that interminable last six months of my doctoral studies, reading unrelated to my dissertation). On that first day, as the whole summer stretches before me, I am utterly exhausted, but simultaneously filled with pleasurable anticipation and resolve.

Here it is, though, a week since I turned in the grades, more than three weeks since I taught my last class, and I have precious little to show. Already I have that sinking feeling, as if the whole summer, and then some, is already spoken for. Former students with Incompletes are still turning in late work, students from this just-finished semester demanding to know why their grades haven’t shown up online; prospective students asking for the syllabus of one of my fall courses (answer: I don’t have it; the course is yet to be designed), editors asking after that book chapter that I have yet to complete, creditors asking why I haven’t paid (and never will pay) that last ambulance bill for Dad. And now, here I sit at the dining-room table with my second cup of tea, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of nothing.

For the first few days of the summer, I always tell myself—despite my resolution to work slowly and steadily, to start as I mean to carry on—that it is okay not to do much of anything, that I need to catch up on lost sleep, unwind, and generally be kind to myself. But in my heart of hearts I know that I am simply postponing the inevitable: there is no substitute for getting started.

The trouble is that inevitably, the instant I finish teaching my last class, either I fall sick or crisis strikes at home. There is no time in-between to take a deep breath. It’s like when Nikhil was a baby and went down for his 45-minute nap (unlike my friends’ babies who regularly took two-hour naps during the day, sometimes two of them), I would immediately start rinsing out his dirty nappies (because of course I used cloth diapers rather than disposable) and inevitably, the instant that I had finished the last one, he would wake up as if on a timer. So it was this year; so much has happened since that last day of classes in early May that I can’t account for it all. Through the blur of these past three weeks I seem to recall that, among other things, my eyeglasses broke in two during the last, desperate hours of my final grading, the air conditioning failed during an unprecedentedly hot mid-May heatwave, more students than ever before failed to complete their final term papers on time, and, of course, the nation has been teetering on the brink of a Constitutional crisis. All I know is that I feel as if I’ve been continuously and furiously busy, but seem to have nothing to show for it but a lot of late nights where I fall asleep on the couch and so many rounds of Canfield’s Solitaire (called Demon in England because it is so notoriously hard to win) that my hands ache with the repetitive stress. My hands actually ache from doing a whole lot of nothing.

The cure for doing nothing seems obvious: just do something; make even a little headway with it, and you will begin to feel better. But what to start on first? Perform triage, and then start with the most urgent task. But there are so many urgent tasks; it’s overwhelming. This is where the deck of cards comes out for yet another round of Canfield. If I lose, I play again: just until I beat Canfield. If I win, I play again: why quit when you’re ahead? (Wait, isn’t the maxim Quit while you’re ahead? No matter.) You get the picture, and unless you’re superhuman, or one of those Highly Effective People, you’ve probably struggled with your own version of it.

But the summer is young yet, and despite my sinking feeling that it’s already over, it really isn’t. It is. Not. Over. So let me take stock, and come up with a game plan; just for today.

First, open that unfinished book chapter and get back in the groove: Where was I when I last worked on it, and what do I need to do next? Actually get to work on it for a short period of time, setting a timer and stopping when it goes off; but not before writing myself a brief To Do note for the next time I sit down to it.

Second, take a brisk walk; it doesn’t have to be a long one. The 40-minute loop down through the old cemetery is perfect, but the shorter leg-stretch up to the Town Line and back will suffice.

Third, Destination Henion Bakery: sit with a cup of tea and a little something (okay, a jelly doughnut; although they now make these light, not-too-sweet little French things called choquettes; if feeling righteous, substitute a couple of them for my JD). Keep wireless internet connection resolutely turned off so as to continue to work on essay without distraction for period of time not to exceed 45 minutes. Slow and steady is the way to ease into this.

Now the hard work of the day is done. If energy permits, knock off one of those Incompletes: reread, regrade, recalculate, and resubmit the grade to the Registrar.

What next? Front porch, feet up, and—oh joy!—Extraneous Reading.

After dinner, repair to living-room couch. Get required daily dose of Professor Robert Reich’s Resistance Report, and laugh at opening monologues from last night’s late-night comedians.

This day is the first day of the rest of my life. From the standpoint of now, it is the only day. It is.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

392. Pecking Order

In Family, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on November 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

b943939cc38c7a4c769c401ab271f47cIn the past couple of years I’ve taken over the job of keeping my parents’ bird feeder filled. They always did so religiously, observing the birds’ behavior intently, keeping track of all the different species that paid them a visit, watching over the eggs and fledglings in the spring (see TMA #301, Babysitting), and worrying about their well-being as winter approached. I watch through the kitchen window as I do the washing up, trying not to anthropomorphize, though it’s well-nigh impossible for me not to do so.

At first I couldn’t help but notice the large birds taking up too much space, scaring off the smaller ones, and trying to scarf up all the seed. I also noticed little birds of many species perching on a nearby tree, like so many Christmas-tree decorations, and coming forward one by one to take their turn at the feeder. The term “pecking order” immediately came to mind, and it struck me how apt it was; here were the birds lining up hierarchically by size, taking it in turns to peck at the birdseed. But I was wrong, wrong on the origins of the term, and wrong in my knee-jerk interpretation of what was happening at the feeder.

It turns out that pecking order was coined by Norwegian zoologist and psychologist  Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, whose 1921 PhD dissertation presented his observations and interpretations of  social dominance among cooped-up chickens who, apparently, punished transgressors with a “painful peck” that taught them their place in the hierarchy. He claimed that this hierarchy was not learned, but inherent in the birds’ nature. Other scholars seized on this notion, and applied it to human social hierarchies as well, arguing that we are competitive creatures who naturally establish social pecking orders.

This line of thinking reached back to the 19th century, when Darwin’s theory of natural selection was seized upon by social Darwinists who extended it to persons, groups, and races, arguing for Herbert Spencer’s theory of the “survival of the fittest.”  According to them, human society naturally followed the law of the jungle, and those who came out on top were evolutionarily superior to the rest. In his 1949 elegy, In Memoriam, Tennyson entered what was to become a long-running debate with his now-famous phrase, Nature, red in tooth and claw, in a section of the poem where he contrasted the seeming heartlessness of Nature with the religious belief that Love was the ultimate force in the universe. And ever since, the work of politicians, artists, social scientists, and natural scientists has been shaped—or skewed— by the assumption that cutthroat competitiveness is hard-wired in human beings, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

How many Nature documentaries have you watched where a powerful predator stalks, kills, and devours its hapless prey? Take note of the narrative thrust of the storyline and tone of the commentary. More often than not, it seems, the narrator focuses almost obsessively on the gory details, delighting in the bloodthirsty order of things, as if to naturalize, even valorize, similarly violent behavior in human beings.

Back to my kitchen window. Viewing the birds at the feeder without my pecking-order lenses, I still saw the blue jay crowding out the smaller songbirds or the red-bellied woodpecker drilling far into the feeder with its long, rapier-sharp beak, which other birds wisely gave a wide berth. But I also noticed other kinds of behavior. First of all, there was very little actual fighting, aside from the occasional wing-beating flap when two birds descended on the feeder at the same time, and one made sure it got in first. But there was no further fussing and fighting, and certainly no pecking. The other bird simply waited in line, as customers do at a crowded restaurant, until there was space for it at the bar, and then took its place, first-come, first-served. I also observed that while big birds were dominating one side of the feeder, the smaller birds simply lined up on the other side, and there seemed to be little conflict either between the big and the small or among the small ones.

In addition to competition, I observed an interesting symbiosis among different species. While most of the birds perched on either side of the feeder, others who were no good at perching, like the mourning doves, picked up the fallen seed, as did the squirrels. One morning, I even saw a flock of free-ranging hens from next-door cleaning up on the ground—amicably, I might add: no sign whatsoever of a pecking order.

There have been some exceptional scientists who have been free enough from the prevailing social-Darwinist bias to pioneer other approaches, both at the cellular level and at the level of relationships between different organisms.  One was the late evolutionary theorist Lynn Margulis, who focused on symbiosis and  cooperation rather than competition as the driver of evolution. Her perspective brought her into vigorous debate with neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene), but while her ideas were initially ridiculed, many of them were eventually accepted.

alcc41

My father felt so strongly about keeping the bird feeder well stocked with seed that he was reluctant to leave home for any length of time lest it run out. As for the larger predators, he was a particular lover of the Big Cats. He never tired of watching documentaries of lions and tigers, neither reveling in or recoiling from their carnivorous natures. “They have to eat,” he would simply say, “What magnificent creatures they are!” But his favorites were the videos showing the close relationships that developed between Big Cats and humans, and he never tired of watching a YouTube video of the joyful response of a lion raised by humans, released to the wild, and then reunited with them when they returned to visit after many years. He was deeply touched by the scene every time. “We under-estimate these animals,” he would always say, shaking his head in wonder and sadness, for I think he was remembering having to leave behind our beloved dog when we left India for the United States (see TMA #54, Flash).

So what a person sees at the bird feeder depends on how that person sees the world. While one cannot  eradicate one’s own biases altogether, one can at least attempt to be aware of them. Pecking order—pshaw! More like pecking disorder.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

383. It’s a Process

In Media, reflections, Stories on June 11, 2016 at 2:39 pm

2176152-African-American-businessman-wrapped-in-computer-cables-looking-up-with-exasperation--Stock-Photo

I’ve always prided myself on being an eminently sane person, but there are two things guaranteed to unhinge me: bureaucratic paperwork and problems with technology, especially anything to do with computers. There’s a snapshot in my mind of me, three months after Nikhil’s birth, tearing my hair out as I filled out nightmarish, too-numerous-to-count forms in order to get reimbursement for all the hospital bills of the past year. Or melting down on April the 15th every year, as I scramble to complete, photocopy, and mail the tax return–or in some cases the deferral form–in time, sometimes having to drive to the closest district post office that stays open extra-late on Tax Day.

Because I find it so hard to undertake such tasks, my mind will come up with any number of devious ways to avoid tackling them. Of course, the longer the delay and the larger the backlog the more daunting it all becomes, until I wonder why the pressures of modern life don’t drive more people over the edge. But somehow, something a friend said to me yesterday, something I’ve heard said many times in the past, clicked in a way it never had before.

This past month I’ve been dealing rather badly with another challenge: the probably-unrecoverable loss of my computer’s hard drive. It happened in the penultimate week of the semester, with deadlines of all kind looming, and as I heard the news I had to struggle to hold back tears. “My whole life is on that computer,” I told the officious young  Apple store operative. “No, Ma’am, your data is on it, not your life,” he replied, in infuriatingly patronizing tones. I pasted a grim smile on my face and told him that I stood corrected, thank you, but mentally gave him one tight slap. For me, there was very little difference between my data and my life, since that hard drive contained all my documents and photos dating back to graduate school.

300px-MacIntosh_Plus_img_1317The saga of the corrupted hard drive had dragged on for more than a month, and my friend Peter had kindly agreed to help me get my laptop up and running again. Peter is, among many other things, a computer wiz who attends the monthly  MIT Swapfest, a flea market where techie-types exchange electronic parts and equipment, and regularly returns with mind-blowing bargains, such as laptops for $50, iPads for $10, and for $5, boxes full of assorted cables. Of course, he knows what those cables are and what to do with them, and has exactly what the languishing laptops need to restore them to working condition; for many people, me in particular, they would just add to my legion of obsolete electronics, dating all the way back to the 30 year-old Mac Plus from grad-school days (that my brother-in-law Dan, also a computer wiz, taught me how to use in the midst of a raucous Hallowe’en party‑a testament to Apple’s intuitive design).

Peter’s prime directive is to save money making his old computers new again and, while he’s at it, having a grand old time. Bargain-hunting at the MIT flea market is his equivalent of my thrift-store shopping, something to look forward to and delight in. For me, however, the quest to recover my files and get my laptop up and running again is excruciating every step of the way; I just want my computer back–yesterday; but unfortunately, it was not meant to be. You’d think that ordering a new battery and hard drive would be a relatively simple process, involving just a couple of clicks. But first I had to choose among a host of possible hard drives online; hard-disk or solid-state, 250 or 500 Gigabytes, new or reconditioned. Some had to be picked up in person at the nearest store, others would be shipped to me—if they were currently in stock, that is. They also had to be compatible with the particular model of my laptop, down to the month of manufacture. And even after these decisions, there was a staggering array of brands to be researched and selected from, each with different warranty periods and customer reviews.

Amazon-locker-return

Finally I decided on one particular hard drive, waited the requisite few days for it, and carried it over to Peter, who had my poor laptop prepped for open-heart surgery on Anna’s kitchen table, looking terribly vulnerable with its cover off and a row of tiny screwdrivers arranged neatly beside it. But a few hours later I received a call from the surgeon; hurrying back, I found that he had unpacked the hard drive only to find that it was dented, its label was cracked and perforated, and altogether,  it was clearly not new. Back in the box it had to go, return paperwork had to be filed online, return labels printed, and the package dropped off at a UPS pick-up site. Peter decided it would be best to order a hard drive that could be picked up and inspected in person, but the size we needed was not in stock, and the only one available was twice the capacity and twice the price. Nevertheless, he drove to the store, paid the price, and we were back in business; or would be, once the battery arrived.

new-macbook-pro-15-4inch-i7-4gb-500gb-2-4ghz-2011-for-sale-4fe17a0018bb2b83cbf4Meanwhile, my girlfriend Sartaz was urging me to have done with it and just purchase  a new computer, which would come with a three-year repair-and-replacement  plan, an already-installed operating system, and numerous other perks and applications. Why limp along for weeks with all these hassles and more bound to follow, when I could be back in business in an hour (not counting, of course,  the recovery of the data on my damaged hard drive)? I flip-flopped between the two options. On the one hand, I believed in repairing things rather than continually buying new ones. On the other hand, I needed to get back to work, and did not have the skills, the temperament, or the time to keep reordering, returning, and replacing parts.

Over the past couple of weeks, ever since I asked him to help me and he had graciously agreed, Peter and I‑-both quick-tempered, both opinionated‑-have had several heated exchanges. The root of the conflict has always been that I am impatient to get my computer working again, and just wanted him to tell me what to order, install it, and be done with it; while Peter wants to be sure that I have reviewed the pros and cons of all the possible ways forward, understood the difference between them, and made a fully informed choice. Although we have both been trying hard to see and respect each other’s point of view, we have clashed nonetheless. But yesterday, something shifted.

(imgur.com)

(imgur.com)

While preparing to install the newly purchased hard drive, Peter discovered yet another problem with my battle-scarred old laptop: its built-in CD drive was malfunctioning. It was at this point that he softened his hard-line stance against buying a new one and began to look up the costs of replacement rather than repair (which, of course, involved still more choices). And yet, ironically, it was also at this point that I let go of my exasperation and finally began to see the task from Peter’s point of view. I realized that for him, the whole thing was enjoyable, every step of the way. It was a quest in the old sense of the word, a journey whose end was not so important in itself, but valuable by virtue of what one could learn along the way. It was, in short, a process.

At various points over the past few months when I was at my most frustrated, on the verge of giving way to despair and raging against the world and any hapless person who happened to be trying to help me out, Peter said soothingly, “this is a process,” but I dismissed his words before they even registered. Process meant nothing to me; I wanted the product: a working computer, and I wanted it now. I had no patience for Peter’s tedious explanations of the inner workings of the components of all the different models, neither did I have any desire to be dragged through the decision-making process. That was what he was supposed to be doing for me, wasn’t it? But yesterday, when he said “this is a process” for the umpteenth time, the effect was not irritation, but sudden, clarifying insight. Living is a process, and every decision we make takes us on a path, which itself will present us with a series of choices. Walking the path joyfully, engaging fully with all the choices encountered along the way, is not just “a learning experience,” it is life itself. I can look upon each encounter as an obstacle, something that delays my arrival at the destination, or I can see it as an opportunity to learn something valuable. These infuriating road-blocks could be Kafkaesque ordeals designed to drive me insane, or they could be the gifts given to the questing hero by strangers along the way, gifts that turn out to be crucially important in enabling him or her to succeed.

passportNow, I wouldn’t want to overstate my little epiphany. I still want my computer, and still want it now. But later the same day, I used the insight to take the first steps in another journey I had been putting off for two years: the bureaucratic nightmare of renewing my British passport. With the U.K. about to vote on whether or not to leave the European Union, I hoped that submitting my application before June 23rd might secure me an EU passport for another 10 years. It involved registering and filling out a form online, making and mailing a complete color copy of my U.S. passport and passport photos tailored to insanely precise British specifications, and calling the passport office in the U.K. with questions not answered in any of the online FAQs.

Armed with my new mantra, I began; and, true to the formula of all heroic quests, the road did not run smooth. I had to save the online form half-done, because I needed  questions answered, and that couldn’t be done until Monday morning. At the copy shop, the color copier malfunctioned and, after nearly a hour’s wait, they returned the job unfinished, suggesting that I go elsewhere for the remaining pages. But miraculously, I did not blow up or melt down. I simply told myself that it was a process and that I had begun it. I will complete it on Monday, inshallah, and then another long-dreaded, long-delayed, job will be done. Or not; it’s a process.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

380. Zoe

In blogs and blogging, India, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 30, 2016 at 6:21 pm

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy


ZZoe
is a Greek name meaning Life. (Think of zoology, protozoa, zoetrope (or zootrope).) Zed is the last letter of the English alphabet, but Zeta is not last in the Greek. Perhaps the Greeks knew that the goal is not to be found at the end.

What is the end—the goal, the purpose—of life? Life itself. Life and its secret meaning, toward which so many seekers strive, only to find, in the end, that they had had it all along, if only they had stopped to notice. What do the Upanishads say? It is Sat-Chit-Ananda: Sat (existence), Chit (consciousness), and Ananda (Bliss).

Life brings me joy.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

%d bloggers like this: