Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Ides of March

A few months back, they selected my doctoral dissertation to be among the top three in the field. And last month, they told me that they do not have additional money to renew my contract.

The bipolar nature of academia baffles me. How could these two extreme things happen within a span of a few weeks, I cannot explain.

So I am back to looking for a job, a postdoctoral position to be more specific, not knowing what awaits me. It has been six weeks since that day, and I still haven’t found anything. But in these six weeks, numerous meltdowns and heartbreaking days of staring into the unknown later, I have had some profound realizations.

I have realized that I cannot control everything. That instead of resisting the waves, I can only learn to ride with them.

I have realized that the transition time between the end of something and the beginning of something else is the region of greatest possibility. I make the analogy using Lego blocks. Whenever something ends, anything, a relationship, a career, a job, a life, we lie like a pile of Lego blocks, broken, without direction, and feeling useless. But that is also the exact moment when we can recreate and redefine ourselves, mold ourselves into something new, create new possibilities, and become someone different. I think that if we were never broken, we would never get a chance to build ourselves again.

I have realized that the US is extremely unfriendly and unforgiving for people who require a job as well as a visa. Even when they have a PhD from the US.

I have started looking into my options in other countries, which I had not done before. The complacency of having a job in the US had stopped me from looking into my options elsewhere.

I have learned to reach out to other people. I don’t just wait for a job posting to show up. I proactively contact people, asking if they are looking to hire. Sure, nothing has come out of the effort so far, but failure is not the opposite of success. In fact, success and failure lie side by side, the opposite being not trying at all.

I have realized that people can ask to interview you, and you give a job talk with full gusto, only to be told that they do not have a position, but they will keep you in mind. What baffles me is, if they never had a position, why did they make me prepare a job talk and make a presentation in the first place? Human behavior is sometimes difficult to make sense of.

I have realized that there is more to me than what I do, my professional identity. When asked about who I am, I say that I am an educational researcher. However, there is much more to me than just being an educational researcher.

I have learned to be able to stare at the ending of something, and let go. If I do not find another job (with the visa in place) in the next few months, my stay in this country is history. I have been here for more than 7.5 years now, and to think that I might just have to leave everything I have and leave one fine day is heartbreaking. It is worse when you know that it was not your doing, and you cannot do anything to make the situation better. The feeling of paralysis that comes from helplessness is very difficult to come to terms. In fact these days, I notice in me a tendency to push doing certain things that bring gratification. The other day, my mom remarked that I need a haircut, and I told her that I want to save the occasion for the day when I find a job (equaling a hair cut with finding a job). I am seeing that the rice at home is beginning to get over, and a part of me is debating whether I should delay buying the big bag of rice until I find a job, because I don’t want to leave it unused if I have to go. The rice connection doesn’t even make sense to me, one needs to eat everyday, job or no job. Yet the prospect of spending for something makes me feel guilty, not knowing how much I might need to save for the rainy day.

I have realized that there will never be a dearth of work for me, even though there is a dearth of jobs. The number of papers I am involved in right now, it will take me at least a year to finish writing all those papers, job or no job.

I have started to notice myself as an observer, like I would observe someone else. Some days, I feel so lousy, it is hard for me to get up and get ready for work. Other days, I am naturally strong, telling myself that this is just a phase, and things will look better soon. I have better days when I feel stronger. But when I do not, the day drags on aimlessly, and inefficiency spirals, to make me feel even more lousy.

And of the many other realizations, I have also realized that I can look at the situation whatever way I want to. I can blame myself, my luck, or whatever. Or I can be kind to myself, and tell myself that it was not my fault. That come what may, I am in control of my life, and a certain external situation that was not created by me should not have the power to disorient me. Sure, I can choose to dance to the whims of fate, breaking a little bit every time the weather is rough. Or, I can choose to stay calm while the storm passes, because things will be better again. Is my pain greater than the collective pain of the world? I am looking for guarantees and securities in a world where airplanes disappear into thin air, and sturdy ships sink into the bottom of the ocean. Is my pain any greater than their pains? Or tomorrow if I was diagnosed with a terminal disease, will the job situation still bother me so much? It is all about perspective.

But most importantly, I just feel annoyed that anything should come in between me and my work. I dream of a day when I will be able to wake up and start working with enthusiasm, not having to worry about things like employment and visa.


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Art of Giving

With time, I have grown disillusioned about the gifts we often give people, and what it means to us or other people. When I was little, there was no trend of giving gifts every time we visited someone. Visiting somebody usually meant getting a box of mishti (sweets) from the local sweet shop, and getting a bar of chocolate if there were children at home. That was the standard norm. No one expected any more. Gifts like clothes were restricted to members of the family, once a year during Durga Puja. And then there were birthday gifts and wedding gifts. But that was it.

Yet now, I see people getting each other gifts all the time. I have done that myself. You visit someone, and you get them perfumes, jewelry, home decoration stuff, and what not. If you visit someone’s home, you get them gifts. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fathers Day, Mothers Day, Friendship Day, Hug Day, Housewarming, Baby Showers, the list never ends. I have often thought about the value these gifts have in our life. Wrapped in nice and shiny paper and presented in colorful bags using ribbons, where do these commercial tokens of love eventually end up? Is it merely a formality, or did it really mean something? When my sister got married, I got to see up close how much of gift analysis and gift abuse went on- Who gave what? How many? Who did not give what? Everything needed to be remembered in precision, because the same quality of gift would be given to them when they invited you. That part I understand, but what amazed me was the huge number of gifts that were recycled. Clothes and jewelry and kitchenware that did not live up to our standards, or were duplicates. Since what we wear is so personal, it is only natural that what we did not like, we would not wear. But that gift was a token of love to begin with, so it felt wrong to recycle it at someone else’s wedding. But what if that gift was a recycled one to begin with?

It also made me think of another fundamental concept- the value (and not the price) of the gift. Gift exchanges usually happen based on their prices, but what about the value? To me, a handwritten letter from a friend, or a travel postcard from a travel buddy means a lot more than an expensive brand of lipstick. I have carefully preserved every letter and card I have received over the years, but commercial merchandise did not mean the same to me. If this is the case, why send gifts to people, especially people whose homes are already brimming with stuff? What value does it add to their life anyway?

So a few months ago, I made a decision. I decided, no more gifts. Only presents. What is the difference? I see a present as something that is valuable for the present, not necessarily a piece of stuff, but an attribute that one will enjoy. For example, taking the time out to spend an evening with someone and have dinner, instead of sending them a gift for something. Remembering someone’s birthday, and calling them, instead of sending them a message on Facebook. Sharing a list of favorite movies or favorite sings with someone. Remembering what is someone’s favorite dish, and cooking it for them. Taking someone’s children to the zoo or the park, instead of giving them an expensive toy. Doing something, teaching something, or helping someone with your skills to show that you care. I had my moments of doubts, when I feared that people might criticize me behind back, calling me a miser. But I remembered the famous saying, “Be the change you want to see.” And I think that it has worked out well so far.

Last week, I was visiting someone in Philadelphia who agreed to host me although there is a baby at home, and they don’t exactly live in a palace. I needed to be there for work, and was on a tight budget. So I didn’t want to spend money on hotels. Also, I saw it as an opportunity to bond with my friend, spend time with her, and hang out with her family, including the baby. But once again, fears crept up my mind as I was faced with the gift dilemma. I was visiting the baby for the first time, and tradition demanded that I got something for the baby. But here was my dilemma. I could not carry something big from my place, because I was taking a flight and had baggage restrictions. I have no idea about gifts for babies. Even if I did, I do not know what the baby might already have. America is the land of plenty, where most people suffer from excess and not scarcity. And knowing how picky everyone is about clothes these days, I did not know what clothes to buy for the baby. Knowing how unwanted gifts are recycled by many, I did not want to give something that would be a waste of time, money, and resources. So I went there empty-handed.

But I have one skill that I could use to give them a present. I am a photographer. So one evening, we all went outside, and I took hundreds of family pictures. And on another day, I did an indoor photo session for the family once again. I know that new parents (or even not so new parents) love having pictures of their baby. So I put in the time, and made the effort to make the baby smile, give ideas to the mom about how to dress the baby up, and took hundreds of pictures of the family that they have been proudly showing off to their friends on Facebook ever since. And that serves my purpose and makes me happy. If I gave them something from BabiesRUs, I would never know if the baby liked it, already had a duplicate, or was being put to good use. But the value of what I gave them was immediate, and palpable. I think my plan worked.

So this is what I plan to do from now on. Give a present, and not a gift. Spend one-on-one time. Have conversations in real time. Listen. Write a hand-written letter. Send a thank you note. Take pictures of people. Take the children to a park, or do hands-on fun activities with them. Teach a skill. Take time to call people on their birthdays and not just send a Facebook message. Make an effort to meet people. No more expensive toys or jewelry or clothes. The more materialistic we get, the more we miss out on the human touch. And people have enough money to buy what we gift them anyway. So what is the point?


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Job

How often do you say, "I'm looking for a job", instead of, "I'm looking for the job"? 

This difference of one word (a versus the) makes a world of a difference in our attitude toward seeking gainful employment. To me, "looking for a job" shows my complacency, inadequacy, and my inability to bargain for more in life. Whereas "looking for the job" shows a definite aim and structured plan of action. I didn't realize this difference until very recently, when I started looking for a job, and went like, wait a minute. I'm already in the seventh page of my curriculum vitae. I have three degrees beyond a bachelor degree, including a Ph.D. I have done very well in school. And all these years of training later, I don't need "a job". I need "the job". 

It might be a good idea to pay close attention to how I frame my words. For often, what you ask for is what you get in life.


Monday, April 07, 2014

Building Up

I think that the transition time between the end of something and the beginning of something else is the region of greatest possibility. I make the analogy using Lego blocks. Whenever something ends, anything, a relationship, a career, a job, a life, we lie like a pile of Lego blocks, broken, without direction, and feeling useless. But that is also the exact moment when we can recreate and redefine ourselves, mold ourselves into something new, create new possibilities, and become someone different. I think that if we were never broken, we would never get a chance to build ourselves again.


Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Individual Health and Societal Influence

I always find it ironic that so many large screen televisions at my gym constantly tune in to the various food channels, especially because people who have their eyes glued to those television screens are actually working hard to lose weight. No one listens to what they cook, because everyone has their earphones on. If not food channels, there are other channels where the commercial breaks unabashedly show food advertisements. I think that showing high resolution, close-up views of pepperoni pizzas and cheese-laden burgers is an insult to the person who is sweating it out and trying to live healthier. If one cannot control what is aired on television, what is the need to have televisions at gyms in the first place? What if instead, they aired shows where other people are working out as well? Shared pain of exercising is a better incentive to stay fit than the lure of looking at junk food, or any food for that matter.

My complaints are not restricted to the gyms alone. Obesity is a leading public health issue in the United States, associated with greater susceptibility to both physical and mental ailments. Interestingly, most of us know the facts. Most of us are aware that regular exercise and eating right have plentiful long-term benefits (improved cardiovascular health, strong joints and bones, and better mental health are some of them), that fruits and vegetables are good while soda is bad, and irregular life habits contribute to obesity. Why is it then that so many of us are still struggling with obesity?

And the even more important question to reflect on would be, Are our own societal practices setting us up for failure in committing to a healthy lifestyle?

My interest in the psychosocial and behavioral aspects of obesity stems from my own struggles with weight control. When I had moved to the US seven fall seasons ago, I had stared in awe at the portion size of my first meal in the country. I had struggled to finish even half of it back then, but within months, I learnt to eat all of that, and order dessert too. Ever since, I have visited and dined in eleven countries across Asia, Europe, and North America, but the portion size of food in US restaurants remains the largest among all other countries. I am yet to discover a restaurant that serves half portions for all their lunch and dinner menus, instead of handing out takeout boxes.

Most of us fall within one of the three categories in the spectrum of health. At one end of the spectrum are the people who run marathons, eat well, and are fully committed to a healthy life. On the other extreme of the spectrum are people who do not care about their health, or what they eat, or how much exercise they get. But many people are like me, stuck somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, caught in the web of awareness and guilt, awareness about how to live healthy, and guilt about not being able to pursue it fully. If you look around carefully, you would notice that more fit people frequent the gym regularly compared to fat people. If that is the case, what would take fat people to cross the threshold of inertia, and head to the gym at least a few times a week on a regular basis? Effort, commitment, and discipline are needed at the individual level, undoubtedly. But this is where the society can choose to play a crucial role in either supporting us, or not supporting us in our daily quest for living healthy. And the society is no one else but people like us.

When I go grocery shopping, I see that the shelves at the checkout counters of most stores sell chips, candy, and aerated drinks instead of other healthier options. You would be standing at the checkout counter, waiting patiently and beaming at all the fruits and vegetables you bought, and suddenly you will notice stacks of chocolates and candies, all wrapped nice and shiny, waiting to be picked up and taken home. You hesitate, your hands itching, wondering how much harm can eating an innocuous looking small bar of chocolate does. And there lies my disappointment. I am not saying that all the stores across the country are strategically conspiring and tempting people into buying unhealthy food that they would not otherwise buy. All I am saying is that stores are not being thoughtful about the way they organize food items at their checkout counters.

In an era characterized by sedentary lifestyle and overdependence on machines, the ease and availability of takeout food, compared to regularly cooking at home, and an array of food products marked sugar free and fat free, which actually do more harm than good, we find ourselves at the crossroads of making important lifestyle choices every day. Once again, the question to consider is, are our own societal practices setting us up for failure in committing to a healthy lifestyle? When fit people tend to get fitter and fat people tend to get fatter because of the lifestyle choices, how does one make that giant leap from being fat to fit, and how will society support such behavioral changes? The issue begs for some serious introspection about the value we assign to living healthy, at the societal, workplace, and individual level.

Additionally, when so many of us spend more than eight hours a day at work, it is important to understand how better work practices/policies can improve individual health. I saw a great example of this at an organization I recently visited, where there are excellent on-campus gyms, group fitness classes, bikes to commute within campus, and access to a variety of healthy food choices from many international cuisines, provided at no cost to their employees. No doubt that an organization like that attracts the best brains and gets much more out of its employees by investing in their health and creating a better workplace environment. On the other hand, when I am working in the department late at night and feel my stomach rumbling, the only option within the building is a vending machine that spits out chocolates, potato snack chips, and aerated drinks.
Through societal and workplace interventions, we can address obesity and champion the cause of healthier lifestyles through eating right and working out. How can we reduce automobile-dependence so that more people choose to bike or walk to work? How can gym facilities and healthier food be made more accessible to everyone? Does proximity to a park mean more people will spend time pursuing outdoor physical activities for better health? How can individuals feel more supported in their quest for healthy living, from a community standpoint? These would be some important questions to ask as well as answer. Individual-level changes will be more effective only when supported by societal-level support systems. And while the society learns better to support people in their quest for a healthy life, resist the candy bowl at the bank counters. Avoid going to those all-you-can-eat buffets, because there is no upper limit to how much you can stuff yourself, or how much you can weigh. And learn to avoid free food at seminars and meetings if free means pizza or donuts or cookies. For what seems free comes with a huge long-term hidden cost attached to one’s health and well-being.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Rethinking the job-identity

Every once in a while, I'm asked if I am in research or in a job. These are mostly people from all age ranges in India. Probably what they mean is, do I work in the academia, or in industry. I get that. But this mindset of research versus job is somewhat disconcerting. Does it mean that research does not count as a job? 

I think that it is the lack of basic understanding that doing your own thing can also be counted as a job for which you get paid. This is what researchers do. This is why I want to be a research professor, to pursue my own research ideas. I’d like to acquire sufficient skills and expertise that I do not have to work for anyone. That I will come up with my own questions, write grants to seek the money, and investigate those questions. It took me a long time to figure out why being a research professor is such a coveted job in the US. Based on my experience in India, I thought that all professors did was teach.

I'm wondering, what qualifies as a "job" for the greater mass? Something you spend at least one-third of your day doing? Something that pays the bills? Some place that you have to show up at, at least five days a week? What else? I don’t think that money is always a criterion. I do a lot of unpaid work too, that I consider my job. I take care of the house, I do writing and editing work, I lead many projects, and I pursue photography. The list is longer. None of these pay me. So let me refine my definition of what a job is. I think that anything that enriches our identity (social, personal, professional, etc.), is a job. Anything that makes us accountable to other people, and to ourselves is a job. Anything that makes a difference in this world is a job. Perhaps reading this will help people open up their mind about how one perceives work.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

April Snow (Oechul)

“If we met long ago or much later, what would we be?”

We find love in the most unexpected places, when we are least expecting it. I did too, for a man whose name I cannot say properly, whose language I do not understand, and who I am never going to meet. Yet he left me speechless with his acting in this movie I have watched three times in the last four days.

Sunday evening, I wanted to watch a movie, and was randomly browsing their “foreign movie” section when I accidentally saw the name “April Snow”. Intrigued, I read the synopsis, and started watching it. Two hours later, I had finished watching it, shaken to the core, sobbing, and knowing that my life would never feel the same again.

There are many famous, or not so famous movies you watch and like, and kind of forget. This, on the other hand, is an ordinary story narrated rather extraordinarily. Bae Yong-Joon and Son Ye-Jin are ordinary people, leading ordinary lives, when everything changes one fine day. Their spouses meet with an accident that leaves them in coma, and it is then that their spouses realize that they were having an affair. What we see over the next few weeks/months is how Bae and Son care for their respective spouses, and in the process of shared grief, they fall in love with each other. That is all that there is to the story. However, the way it is narrated is extraordinary. The first time I saw it, I was busy following the story. The next two times, I noticed all those subtle things that I had missed the first time. There are many things I loved about this movie. I’ll write down a few.

·         Snow: The story starts with a drive in the snow, and ends with a drive in the snow.

·         Cell phone: It makes them discover the affair, and the same cell phones, that unite the two at the end.

·         Ordinary people with extraordinary lives: Bae is a stage light designer for concerts, and Son does “household chores”. Unlike other movies, Bae is not a “hero” doing incredible stunts like beating up the goons, but an ordinary next door guy with glasses who could be your neighbor. A very hot neighbor. He does not wear fancy clothes, just jeans and a shirt (not tucked in) and a jacket most of the time, that adds to his appeal. Son is very pretty, but in a sad way. They show Bae crying in at least two scenes, one at the beginning in a bar, and one about fifteen minutes before the movie ends. This makes him seem more human.

·         The constant reference to the change in seasons, that perhaps marks the transition in their love life from winter to spring. Subtle references like the change in their clothes from heavy winter wear to spring wear, the way she buys him a plant (and not flowers) and asks him to make sure that the plant does not die. The way the plant is perched on top of the unopened boxes when he is eating dinner.

·         The utter lack of drama. They were both shocked to discover about the affair. There were tears too, from both sides. Yet it was all shown in a very dignified way. I love the scene where Bae tells his wife that at first he wanted to know, but now he does not. Because in the mean time, he himself fell in love with Son, and perhaps now empathizes with his wife.

·         Although Son has been portrayed as a very docile person, there are streaks of fieriness in her personality. Like when she enjoys running in the cold. And like how, despite hesitating, she decides to make love to Bae. Sure, there are tears, but there is no drama.

·         I love the little places in the movie. Like the motel they stay at, and the little eatery they eat at, with scrap papers on boards across the wall. And the corridor with floor to ceiling glass at the hospital.

·         My favorite scene in the movie is about fifteen minutes before the movie ends, when Son is at that eatery, looking at Bae from the window. Bae, who is in his room, has no idea that he is being watched, and in the next scene, he sobs uncontrollably. The musicthat plays when she is watching Bae breaks my heart every time I listen to it. At that moment, you pray that she steps outside, goes up to his room, and meets him. But she does not. Her husband died, his wife is out of coma, and she thinks that they will probably be reunited now, and she must leave them alone. So she walks out with her suitcases. Closely following this scene is my second favorite scene, where they walk by the sea after making love, and she asks him if they can take a picture together. Immediately, she realizes the gravity of it, and moves away, until he says yes. Once again, I see couples around me, flooding Facebook with their pictures together. Yet the couple in this movie took just one picture together, and it delivers a very powerful message.

·         Talking about favorite scenes, there is another one when the two are hanging out, peeling fruits. And Bae’s father-in-law knocks on the door. It is amazing, the way they act with composure, not panicking. She locks herself up in the bathroom, and later when he opens the door, she just says, “I’m okay.” And he goes and hugs her. One of the many many amazing things about this movie is how little the two people talk to each other, and how much they convey.

·         The most amazing thing is the open-ended ending of the story. As an optimist and a romantic, I would love to think that they united for life, but no one knows. I don’t hope for marriage or anything that screams a false sense of social security. I just hope that they got to be with each other for the rest of their life.

As you can see from my long rambling, I love the movie. This is the first Korean movie I have seen. I don’t know anything about Bae, I didn’t even know about his existence until three days ago. I don’t know how famous he is (although I Googled him, and found him dressed like a girl in many pictures, and I am really confused about that, because he is quite the hot guy in the movie). I don’t even know anything about his other movies. I know that he owns restaurants in Asia, and in Hawaii (that I definitely plan to visit someday). But I want to remember Bae as his character in the movie. Tall guy with glasses, loose jeans and a shirt and jacket, driving a powerful SUV and smoking cigarettes. I wonder why Hollywood hasn't discovered him yet. Of course I am listening to the music from this movie in a loop now. I also wish to go to Seoul now (the movie is based in Seoul), although going to Seoul doesn’t translate into meeting Bae. I just want to see that motel, that hospital, the place where they have dinner together, that walkway by the water where they walk in the night, and the city in general. I feel a connection with Seoul now. Because I have fallen in love with In-su, Bae’s character in the movie.


Friday, February 28, 2014

I know it's a no, but I don't know why

When tragedy happens repeatedly at short intervals, following the same pattern, it becomes comical.

I had applied for a position, and last week, I received an email asking me to log in to their website and find their decision. Hastily, between palpitating heartbeats, cold, sweaty palms, and forgotten passwords, I managed to log in and find their verdict. In their decision, they rejected me. I felt hurt. I knew that it was a competitive position. Like most rejections in life, committees never tell you why they rejected you, although they assure you that they took the time to go through your application. Constructive criticism is often not valued, either from the sender, or by the receiver. Rather than reading about how sorry they are to reject me (which is about their feelings, not mine), I'd rather get to the point and know the reason, because that will bring a sense of closure, and give me perspective. Anyway, I moved on with life. 

This was last week. Earlier this week, they emailed me to say the same thing again, basically spelled out the same decision word by word, in an email now. And today, they sent out another email saying that there was some error in the subject line of the last email (which I hadn't even noticed), so they are sending me another email with the corrected subject line, and with the same decision.

The third time, I burst out laughing. Because you do not need to tell someone "no" three times before you get your point across. And because they could have saved themselves all this wasted time and energy, and just enclosed a one-line truth about why it was rejected, without rehashing again and again how sorry they are. Something about all this was really disturbing. There was no dignity in the way they were rejecting me again and again, although I had accepted their decision with dignity.

This incident once again took me back to my philosophy, unconventional for some, where I always want to know why someone said no. Once I emotionally detach myself from the rejection, I always wonder what people were thinking when they made their decisions. Everyone puts in a lot of time and energy and expectations into their application, or in anything they pursue. I understand that one cannot be accepted all the time. However, if one has really evaluated my application, like they said they did, all it takes is sixty seconds to write down the reason.

“We found someone better than you.”

“Your statistical skills or background is not strong enough.”

“We do not wish to sponsor a visa.”

“We are afraid that you may not have what it takes to do the job.”

Just one line of truth.

And the same thing translates to relationships. It has always disturbed me that people just leave, just grow distant over time. But that one line of truth not only brings closure, it does good to both people involved. Sometimes, we need to hear the truth ourselves, before we can tell others. A long lifetime ago, there was someone I really liked, and enjoyed hanging out with. I assume he enjoyed my company too, given the telltale signs. So instead of playing mental games, strategizing, and thinking of everything I should or should not do because I am a girl, I asked him out. Plain and simple. And he said no. However, we remained friends, we still are, and till date, I have not asked him why he said no. At that time, it broke my heart, not knowing the reason. I thought that we made a very compatible pair, and I was just asking him out, wanting to know him more, without the expectation of a commitment. I spent months feeling terrible about it, until I traveled to California, hiked the Channel Islands on my own, spent a day by myself, and forced a closure to it. I still believe that giving a reason would have made things easier for me.

“You are too tall for me.”

“I did not feel the chemistry.”

“I am a vegetarian. You are not.”

“I only date Russian girls.”

Just one line of truth.

On a different note, I am so trained to distinguish a yes from a no these days that I can open a letter, read the first line, and tell you their decision. When you get accepted somewhere, at a university, conference, or a journal, their first word is “Congratulations!”. They never waste time to let you know that you have been chosen, and they cannot wait to meet you. However, when it is a no, the letter starts with three lines of summarizing how wonderful you are, and how competitive the program is, and how they can only admit a small number of people. They paint such an image of helplessness that it will twist your heart, and make you feel guilty that you applied in the first place. On the second half of the fourth line, they will tell you a no (Although you are so good, we cannot admit you unfortunately). Why not cut the first three and a half sentences and just write their decision? After the fourth sentence comes five more sentences, wishing me all the best and thanking me for applying. So really, they wrote an entire nine lines without giving me any idea about why they just said no.

And I haven’t even mentioned the universities which never respond back. You know that you did not make it because they never reply back. They imitate life in a warzone, where there are no guarantees. With all my job hunting experiences over the years, I know that most places do not bother to inform you if their decision is no. And what’s wrong with this situation? Well, just because you did not qualify for this one does not mean that you will never be able to work in that school. Thirty years from now, you might be the dean of the same school. The point is, life is shorter than we think, and somehow, we go in circles, meeting the same people from the same network again and again. So even if someone thinks that you do not deserve the job, there is nothing wrong in being frank, and amicable about it.

Honesty is hard. Saying things for what they are on your face is harder. It is often easier to hide behind kind, clichéd words, that still mean the same thing. That you were not good enough. That the answer is a no.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Healthy Daal

As children, we used to dread the days when ma made poushtik daal (a term she had coined, poushtik meaning healthy, and daal being lentils). We knew that excess vegetables were getting old in the fridge, especially spinach, and she was using fancy names to make us eat what she cooked. She would even throw in added incentives of a glowing skin, and sharper brain, if one regularly ate that. Not that the daal tasted bad or anything. In fact, true to its name, it was healthy, and had lots of vegetables. However, we had higher expectations from mommy's kitchen. We expected meat, and eggs, and fried stuff everyday.

I am stirring the pot as I write this, cooking the same poushtik daal for dinner. The spinach and the tomatoes have been in the fridge for a while now, and I am too tired to come up with fancy ideas of using it. I am tired at the end of the day, and want a shortcut menu for dinner. I want to throw everything in one pot, stir it a bit, eat it, and go to bed as soon as I can.

The older I get, the more I become like my mother.


Monday, February 03, 2014

Impostor Syndrome

“I am a fraud and they will soon find out.”

I have always wanted to research more about impostor syndrome (a psychological trait in which people do not believe in their accomplishments). This is because I know that I secretly suffer from it. It is a fear that comes on accomplishing something, that perhaps it was not deserved, and perhaps someone made a wrong judgment, and soon, everyone will find out that you are not as bright as they think you are. There is abundant literature about how women in higher education feel it all the time. It often comes from not having enough self-confidence, sense of worth, or mentors and role models who are like you (racially, gender-wise, etc.).

Although I suffer from it, I am now consciously aware of it, so that whenever such thoughts cross my mind, I make an effort to dispel such fears. But that was not the case few years ago. When I first moved to the US, it was to study at a top-ranking university in my field. I have always believed that I was perhaps not their first choice, and someone must have decided not to move to Seattle, and hence I got admission. It may or may not be true, but that is not the point. It shows how I never had the conviction that I could be somebody’s first choice.

Then when I got another acceptance for a PhD four years later, in a public ivy school very well known internationally, I had the same sinking feeling once again. I thought that they saw my previous school’s credentials and assumed that I am good, but they do not know that I am not that competent. I write this with a lot of sadness. I struggled through the fear that someday, my adviser would find out that I was ordinary, and be utterly disappointed.

I finished my PhD in 3 years. In 33 months actually. This shows that it had nothing to do with my mediocrity or luck. It was all hardcore hard work and dedication. The problem is that I did not believe enough in myself.

I have often wondered why I had such fears. Interestingly, I never had that fear in India. It started when I moved to the US. Also, I have this fear only with things related to my career. For my personal achievements, I don’t give two hoots about success and failure. But when it comes to career achievements, I feel that there is too much at stake. I wonder when and how I developed such a uni-dimensional trait. Think about it, I have achieved everything based on my abilities, and not any backing. I had no Godfathers in the field. Every college admission, every job I got was because of my own abilities. My advisers wrote me recommendation letters, but none of them used their contacts to get me a job. I have often asked myself, “Then why?

With time, I grew conscious about it. So every time I would see myself achieving something and belittling my achievements, I would check my thoughts. It might have to do with personal identity. In the US, I never had role models who are like me. What do I mean when I say, like me? I mean, single, Indian, immigrant female. When I met immigrants, they were not single. When I met single women, they were not immigrants. And if they are single and immigrants, they are male. Your personal identity goes a long way in shaping how you see, or do not see yourself. I wish that instead of feeling what I felt, I told myself that yes, I deserve to be here, in this field, succeeding and making a name for myself, and I am not going anywhere.

So why am I writing this? Because I did the same thing today. My dissertation has been selected as among the top three in the US, in my focus area. I was not expecting it at all. So my first sub-conscious thought when I read the congratulatory email was, “They must have sent me the email by mistake.” Immediately, I checked my thoughts. I realized that once again, I was letting myself be a victim of impostor syndrome. None of the selection committee members know me personally, and it is impossible that they are doing me a favor by giving me this recognition. I have been selected in the top three, but they give only one award. So next month, they will let me know if I won it. It is a big honor. Yet momentarily, I forgot about all the hard work and dedication I put in my dissertation. I forgot how I strove to be the best, and produced a quality manuscript. Writing a 300 page document was no fun, but I forgot all about it. Instead, all I thought was, “Perhaps they sent me the email by mistake.” Later, I was pretty mad at myself for feeling that way. The conscious, saner side of me was rebuking the darker side for belittling my achievements all the time. It is as if I am my own enemy, seldom recognizing that I am capable of reaching professional milestones.

So this is for all of you like me, who suffer from impostor syndrome. Believe in what you achieve, and do not attribute your success to anything other than your own hard work. And learn to celebrate your success. It is so important, although I am guilty of not doing it. 

On a different note, I always felt bad that I do not have an "Awards" section in my CV. I have never really won any awards, barring winning a science quiz in the sixth grade (that I participated in because I had a crush on one of the boys), and a Sanskrit calligraphy competition in the seventh grade. I often eyed the awards section of my colleagues' CV with greed. You can imagine, being selected the top three was equivalent to winning the Miss. Universe crown for me (and I did not even have to lie about how I am going to save the planet, and donate all my money to the needy).  

They will let me know next month. If I win, I will be presenting my research at the conference in a few months. And even if I do not win, I get to start a new “Awards and Honors” section in my CV, and add a line there. I’m almost tempted to do a happy dance as I write this.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

Is free really free?

Today, at Target, I was at the checkout counter after buying things when I realized that I forgot to bring my bag. Since there were not too many things, I said that I do not need a bag, and will just carry the stuff in my hand. The lady at the checkout counter looked really surprised and said, "But we do not charge you extra for plastic bags. It is free." I said, "That's okay, I still do not want them, they are not good for the environment."

This brief conversation made me realize that the crux of the problem is what the lady said. "But we do not charge you extra for plastic bags. It is free." Just because it is free does not mean that we need it. And many of us do not realize that free is not really free. Somewhere, someone would be paying the price for the thoughtless use of bags, or anything for that matter. Disposable plates. Plastic spoons. Bags. Bottles. The list is endless. What we do everyday is not sustainable. Somebody out there is already paying the price for our lifestyle. 

If you do not believe me, do take this footprint calculator quiz. It tells you how many Earths would be needed to sustain the resources if everyone lived the same lifestyle that you did. The results will depress you.

Being a part of the American society, I have witnessed up close, and at times even emulated the lifestyle that people adopt here. But I know that this is not sustainable. “What if I can afford it?”, is what you may argue. And I’d say, that even if you could afford it, the planet does not have enough resources to support your lifestyle. Over the years, I have consciously stopped doing many things that I used to do mindlessly. My intentions were not bad when I did them, I simply did not think about the consequences. I’ll give you some examples:

Things I try to do/not do now that I did before:

·         I no longer use disposable plates and spoons for parties. It does not make sense to use things once and then throw them away. Instead, I use proper plates and spoons. A little scrubbing and washing the dishes will do far less long-term damage than mindlessly using disposable items.

·         I use the dishwasher (a full load of course) only when I am too tired to do the dishes. Which comes down to once a month. The rest of the time, I use my strong, masculine hands.

·         To reduce the number of trips made, I go to the grocery stores right from work, than push it to the weekend.

·         I always carry 4-5 “bajarer tholi” (strong, reusable bags) that I especially got from Calcutta that can easily hold a lot of weight.

·         No more Costco and Sam’s Club memberships. I was a Costco member once, and what that meant is I hoarded things in bulk that I did not even need, making my house look like a warehouse. When you have more, you use things without sense. When you have less, you are more careful. I once bought a whole bunch of paper towels back in 2009, and five years and two cross-country moves later, I still have some with me.

·         I never use the air conditioning in summer. I am used to the warm weather, and even find it comforting, because it reminds me of where I grew up. I simply open the doors and windows in summer, letting the bugs and flies come in, and happily live through the heat and humidity. Winters are a different story of course.

However, all that I do is far from being enough. One, I need to know of better ways to recycle, use less, and use carefully. I am trying to find a course that I can take, or identify a resource that will help me do these. And as a single person who drives a humble sedan and flies a couple of times a year, I see myself lower in this food chain of indiscriminately using resources. Think about the families with kids, that use diapers like it is nobody’s business, drive vans, and live in huge homes. Some of my friends in the US live in homes that are no less than mansions. Sure, they can afford it, but can the planet sustain all the heating and water usage?

As a kid, I was never aware of the word recycling. Yet my family was always recycling. It was built within the system. There were no plastic bags when I was little. My grandma and mom never threw the empty Horlicks bottles (or any other bottles). Those glass jars were always recycled and used to store things. There was no mineral water in plastic bottles. No one ate in disposable plates, not even during parties. The vegetable peels were all collected for the cow to eat every day. The tap was never allowed to run freely while we brushed our teeth. Milk was delivered in containers, and not in plastic bags. Newspapers were made into paper bags (kagojer thonga). Gadgets were not bought (or thrown away) mindlessly like we do now. We mostly rode the rickshaw, enjoying the breeze. Recycling and conservation of resources were inherently built in the system.

I am taking an online course on Coursera, called, “An introduction to the US food system:Perspectives from Public Health”, that covers a lot of interesting material about food as a resource, and how water and soil are resources that are being used indiscriminately.

We could argue and debate about this endlessly. But it is undisputed that behavioral change needs to set in. People need to be aware that it is not okay to consume all the resources that we do. And behavioral change cannot come until we step in as larger communities and societies, advocating some dramatic lifestyle changes.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Your Old Faithful Travel Guide

I am generally known to be a level-headed, not-usually-hyper, rational person. But sometimes, only sometimes, I do things that befit this description. I do stupid things that befit my age, and maturity. I realize that I just wrote the concluding paragraph without even starting the post.

I was on my way to Seattle during the winter holidays. I was flying on Christmas eve, hoping to reach Seattle just in time for Christmas. When I was checking in at the airport and the machine at the kiosk asked me if I would like to board the next flight in return for a $200 travel voucher, I should have taken the hint and said yes. I did not. I was in a hurry to reach my most favorite place in the world. Which I did not.

There were weather related issues, and by the time I reachedDenver, I had missed my connecting flight to Seattle. I could neither reach Seattle on Christmas eve, nor could get the $200 travel voucher. I spent the night at a hotel in Denver, and had to be up by 4 am to take the 5:20 am shuttle to be on time for the 6:00 am flight to Seattle. In the fear that I would oversleep and miss my flight, I mostly did not sleep at all. By the time the alarm went off, I had already showered, packed again, and was ready for the airport.

A few years ago, this lifestyle and not sleeping at night suited me fine. But I can see that I am reaching that age where I need my full 8 hours of sleep at night, need my bed, and cannot do red eye flights anymore. It spoils my entire next day, when all I do is sleep. So I boarded the flight to Seattle, texting my friend that I need some Ghoom 3 (Dhoom 3 had released that weekend, and ghoom is Bengali means sleep). Sometime during the flight, probably after I had my complimentary apple juice without ice (I always have that in flight), I put down my head on the serving tray and dozed off. I slept on and off, being very uncomfortable in that cramped space, and somehow managed to have a dream that I was visiting Yellowstone National Park.

Suddenly, I woke up with a jolt and looked outside the window. To my amazement, I saw that we were flying over the Yellowstone National Park. It was quite possible, since the route from Denver to Seattle goes through that area. Now how did I know that this is Yellowstone National Park? Because I saw the Old Faithful geyser erupting below. I have been to that national park once, 4 years ago, and loved it. How lucky one can be if one gets to see the bird’s-eye-view of such a world famous place, for free. I have traveled over Arizona, hoping to see the Grand Canyon from the airplane, but nothing I saw looked like the majestic Grand Canyon. And here, I could see the Old Faithful geyser right below my nose.

Ecstatic, and still a little groggy from sleep, I took out my camera quickly, changed lenses, and took some pictures. Barely able to contain my excitement, I told this to the neighboring two girls sitting by me. “Hey look, we are flying over the Old faithful geyser in Yellowstone”, I beamed. To my confusion, they looked initially surprised, and even tried craning their neck to see the view, but lost interest in the few seconds. I mean, how could one not be excited about the view? Maybe they have been there enough number of times to not be excited anymore? Maybe they had never been there, and did not know what they were missing? “Crazy people”, I said in my head, and looked outside, taking a few more pictures of the geyser that was slowing fading to my right now. But something about their reaction bothered me. Something in general bothered me. Why was the area around the geyser flat? I tried to remember what it looked like 4 years ago. I am pretty sure that I had seen many tall and rugged mountains during that trip. Something just did not seem right.

I kept wondering for the next fifteen-twenty minutes, when I saw the Cascade chain of mountains appear. Ten minutes later, I had landed in Seattle.

Given how quickly Seattle arrived after I saw the Old Faithful geyser, and given how flat it was around the geyser, the only rational explanation I can think of is this. Brace yourself, for I may be right, and it will shock you. We were flying above the Pullman area of eastern Washington, and what I mistook to be the world famous geyser, was a tall factory chimney which was billowing white smoke. We were hundreds of miles away from Yellowstone, both geographically, and figuratively. That explains why we landed so fast. That explained the first confused, and then irritated look those women gave me (as if they were saying to themselves, are we idiots?). And that explains how age is catching up with me, and how a groggy, half asleep state of mind makes my imagination go crazy. This is so embarrassing that sharing it in the anonymity of this blog makes me feel only marginally less stupid. I cannot imagine sharing this with my friends, who know me for my passion for travel.

For the rest of the plane trip, which was not a lot thankfully, I did not make eye contact with my fellow passengers. And you know what? Someone out there is laughing really hard with her friends, recounting how a sleepy woman mistook a factory chimney to be the Old Faithful geyser.