Thursday, January 28, 2010

FREE Works

I was trying to get rid of my TV and entertainment center for months. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but with me having to move, there was no way I could carry a TV with me. It was a nice 24” flat screen TV, with blah blah blah features as if I understood the features), that sat on a nice, classy entertainment center. Not the random free stuff you find abandoned on streets near the university.

2 months ago, I put an ad on craigslist. A few responded and showed interest, but no one showed up. People wrote to me asking about this and that, the features, the color, the dimensions, and incomprehensible terms (for me) like it having RCA jacks for video game hooks up, etc. Not knowing what to do, I reduced the price drastically. Still nothing worked. I kept getting emails with people asking for the same stuff I had already mentioned in the ad. Yet no one bought it. I was giving away my TV and entertainment center for $35 now (which was nothing compared to the original price), yet nothing worked. Even posted it on the Microsoft site and my apartment’s notice board. An apartment-mate finally showed up, checked it out, made me play the TV to make sure it works, told me he will be back with the money, and never came back.

I looked at my TV in sadness, feeling attached every bit, not wanting to part with it, yet knowing I do not have the means to carry it with me. My TV felt like one of those dark skinned girls in the fair and lovely ads that failed to secure a husband and felt unwanted. I wondered what was wrong.

For 2 weeks, I further reduced the price to $20. Still nothing happened.

Then my friend gave me an idea to donate it to the salvation army. She told me to schedule an appointment on the phone so that they could come pick it up. Sounded great to me. I knew I will not get a price for my TV, but at least it would go for some good purpose. I called them to schedule an appointment. They gave me a waiting time so long I knew right away I did not have that much time. Here I was donating my TV for free, yet no one wanted to come take it. Even salvation army option didn’t work.

Then I put an ad on craigslist, but this time in the “free stuff” section. By now, I was pretty sure that my TV was staying with me. If people didn’t buy it for $20, if the salvation army didn’t pick it soon enough for free, why would things be any different now?

So I put an ad again during the evening. And something just changed.

By night, I had 25 emails responding to my “Free TV”. Everyone wanted to come grab it as soon as possible. Now they didn’t care about the dimensions or the features of the TV. One guy even emailed me in a language script (probably Chinese) I did not understand. Another one scribbled me an email is haste and did not check what he wrote, so that when I read it, it was “Hi I want to get you free…”. No one wanted me to deliver it, no one asked questions. I replied to everyone telling that I did not care who took it, whoever came first could get it.

I was in deep sleep when the phone rang. I picked it up with a groggy voiced “hello” when the person on the other side of the line told me he is all ready to get my TV. I squinted at the bedside clock. It was 6:30 am in the morning, and pitch dark outside. Who would wake up in this cold weather and be set to fetch a TV so early because it was for free?

Within minutes, a tall, thin, lanky, bespectacled guy (who looked like a cross between Sheldon’s body and Leonard’s face from the Big Bang Theory) was smiling at me at the doorstep. He didn’t even want to check if the TV worked. Seeing his frame, I wondered if he could carry it all by himself. Within minutes, my TV and entertainment center was out of the door. It seemed he worked in a hurry, lest I change my mind and decide not to give him the TV for free. He didn’t ask for help or assistance, didn’t ask to be escorted out of the door. I would be amazed at someone who could pick it up all on his own.

I closed the door and went back to complete my half-finished sleep. My TV is gone now. I’m glad it found a home, and now that I think about the last few months when I desperately tried to sell it and lost my sleep in the process, the protocol all seems so clear to me. All I had to do it was to give it away for free.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Face(book)ing Dilemma

I joined Facebook (FB) with the hope that the more the number of friends I connect to, the happier I’d be. I couldn’t be more wrong. The more the number of friends I connect to, the unhappier I am. Reason? You tell me why.
The world of FB is somewhat surreal and far removed from reality. It is like the “Golden Age” during Shakespearan times when everything was hunky dory, women had the perfect figure even when gyms didn’t exist, the economy of a country didn’t look as emaciated as it does today (ironically in the land of hopes and promises), children finished their homework on time and didn’t fuss over food, the “Shylockian” airline industry didn’t make you pay for every pound of luggage you carried, and the husband was not a survivor of the wife’s PMS depression multiple times a month. However in the real world, flab tires show from the most embarrasing places no matter how much you discipline your taste buds, dignified women like me have occasional thoughts about marrying a man for his riches and a green card (and the baldness, wrinkles, and lack of youth that comes with it) as a desperate measure of coping with unemployment, the airline industry messes up your baggage during the honeymoon, you as a man are denied sex because you delayed throwing the trash by two days, and Baba Ravi, Ram, Contentmentnanda (a hypothetical name for all the yogi yoga-babas who create miracles) make deep holes in your pocket, charging you hundreds of dollars, only to ask you to control your breathing, keep expectations low, and adopt pain and suffering as a means of happiness in life.
I firmly believe that the photo updates and the status updates on FB are a skewed misrepresentation of actual life, broadcasting and showcasing the best while your real life maybe far from even better than what it was 10 years ago. I see this friend’s picture in a new year party, looking stunningly beautiful in a red dress, all drunk and happy, surrounded by dudes and chicks, making me envy her socializing skills. I see the status update of my friend change from “single” to “engaged” and “married” and fume. Some of my friends have 700 + friends on FB. I don’t even think I know that many people in real life. Come December, I suffer from immense psychological pressure and chronic depression from the sheer update of the wedding pics or the anniversary pics, a sad reminder of something I must do too because even before I know, I will be menopausal and saying bye bye to my youth. I see these friends of mine holding cute little babies out of a Johnson’s soap advertisement and wonder if genetics will play a role in making my baby look so cute. And then there are pictures of the guy at the convocation who recently finished his PhD and got a 120k job offer at the silicon valley. There are updates of couples honeymooning and parasailing in Hawaii, people buying million dollar homes, hugely prego women being pampered at baby showers, girls sitting on piles of empty gift boxes they claim to have received for Valentines Day, friends cooking the best of food, and people giggling and laughing and having fun.

Every one of these characters on FB seem so happy, content, gifted, well-toned, married, employed, and thrilled about life.

Everyone on FB also seem to know someone who is famous.

You suddenly realize with depressing alacrity that people around you are PhDs, graduating, working, gymming, marrying, procreating, buying homes, throwing house warming parties, taking scuba diving lessons, eating fish tandoori, taking their parents to visit the Grand Canyon, buying Audis, passing their exams with flying colors, getting into MIT, performing in dance shows, dressing up for Halloween parties, developing six packs, touring Europe, and starting companies.

This is surreal reality. People are putting up their best to show everything that is good while shoving the “not-so-good” parts of their life deep down. This is not a true representation of the people surrounding me. If it is, then something is very wrong with my stuck life where every little thing I want is achieved after great struggle.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Horn OK Please

This is a weird situation. I learnt how to drive, gained a couple thousand miles of driving experience, but didn’t learn how to honk. Now if you lived in India, you wouldn’t believe me. In fact I wouldn’t believe myself. Unlike here, honking in India isn’t considered rude or uncourteous. It is a part of the driving ritual. The “Horn OK Please” sign is painted colorfully behind trucks and other large vehicles so that they know you are there when you pass them, lest they ruthlessly crush the teeny weeny scooter that you are driving. Over the years, my auditory senses have habituated to the silence of driving here, so much so that every time I call mother in India and she happens to be outside, the sheer traffic noise and the unbearable honking makes me hang up and call back when she is home. I know I sound like one of those spoilt NRIs who wrinkle their nose at everything when they go home, drink pani puri water from mineral water bottles, scoff at the dust and dirt, but do nothing about it. I don’t want to sound like one of them, but the noise is unbearable nevertheless.

I drove for 6 months straight without having to honk. But earlier this month, I became a victim of hazardous driving on two occasions. During the first one, the women (ah, why does it have to be a woman?) nicely took a right turn without seeing me, and came right in front of my lane without indicators. She had no idea I was driving right behind her. The second time, someone decided to change lanes at the last moment without indication. No idea if it was a woman again.

Much to my horror, I found myself groping for the horn on both occasions, but could not find it. Theoretically I know where the horn is located. But I guess my horn reflexes had still not developed well, and my car horn in particular is a little stiff and needs to be pressed really hard. On both occasions I was devastated, groping for the horn and not finding it. It felt like a situation where a person told you harsh words without reason and you suddenly found that you have momentarily lost your speech abilities. You want to open your mouth, protest, let the person know that you will not take shit, but you are mute. Same thing here, I wanted to signal the person but had to let her go. She didn’t even realize she had done something wrong. I on the other hand was left shaken.

So today I was waiting at the traffic lights when I found a car pull behind me. He tried to pass me from the right, thinking there were two lanes. Ordinarily I would have increased my speed, but here I let him pass me and come in front of me (it was still somewhat safe to do so), hit the honk button, and nicely honked for a full 5 seconds. Of course this was a benign mistake compared to the last two, and I could have let him go. The streets were broad, the traffic was light, and no one was driving for anything more than 30 mph. But I had to let go of my honk virginity sometime.

Ahh, the pleasure of honking for the first time. And now I know I no longer suffer from the “I am so dumb that I cannot even honk” syndrome. It felt as blissful as it did when I had learnt to use the skipping rope, boil an egg perfectly, or had learnt to bike for the first time.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Money Matters

House cleaning is boring. Culling through the clutter is even more boring. You go through tons of papers and magazines, wondering how you have so much paperwork in the first place. Books, magazines, bills you wonder if you paid, credit card companies congratulating you because you qualified for their premium credit card membership offer (even though you have never heard of the company and have no intention of doing business with them), discount coupons for Macy’s where you know nothing you like is going to fit you, traders trying to sell you insurance, cars, even dates, and so on. The list is endless.

Yet what has to be done has to be done. Reluctantly, I started cleaning through all the paperwork. An hour of frustrating hard work later, I found a bunch of sealed envelopes that I started to tear off one by one, not even needing to look at the contents inside. Internet bills, paid utility bills, discount coupons for travel cruises to Alaska (it’s January dude !!!!). My eyes fell on a particular sealed envelope from a person very close to me. The envelope was not hand written, and had a very business-like feel to it. I opened the seal, only to discover to my delight a $300 check inside it.

How did the check even get in between Alaska cruise brochures? It was dated about 4 months ago. Jogging my memory, I realized the check was given to me 4 months ago, and I had forgotten all about it. Somehow I always thought I had deposited the check. I called up Mr. Surprise Check to confirm if the money was deposited 4 months ago and if I was suffering from an optical illusion of seeing money around me. It seemed I had never deposited the check !!!!

At a distance, I saw my heavily bespectacled mother looming over me with a stern expression, “I told you to be more careful with your money beta. How can you have check lying in between useless documents? There are people in countries dying of poverty !!”

Mother has a habit of referencing everything I do wrong or everything I forget to do to link it to the underprivileged people who do not have the basic amenities in life. For special effects, she converts the dollars into India rupee to make it sound all the more serious. She has a standard currency converter in her head where every dollar, no matter its value in the current market, is worth 50 rupees.

I just saw her scowling at me. 15,000 rupees?

Guiltily yet thrilled, I rushed to the bank to deposit it. I remembered the times when I had accidentally found a ten rupee note tucked somewhere in between the pages of books, unforgotten. Not that I have a habit of keeping money here and there and forget about it. But there is something great about discovering a $300 check first thing in the morning.

Now I pray I get back those $200 cash I had left somewhere months ago and could never find it again.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

City with a Gender

I must admit this idea was given by my friend during a conversation while driving through Philadelphia downtown. I am merely wording what has been told to me, which I thought was very interesting.

A city is like a living being with a gender. The bigger and busier the city, the more emphasized the stark difference in the gender is.

The city is a male in the mornings. Busy, powerful, strong. Think of the noise. Action. The hustle and bustle. Traffic snarls. People commuting to their work place. Dust and dirt. Sweat and hard work. Concrete. There is something masculine about the activities denoting power, business, and strength. Action is the very sinew of the city during the daytime.

The city is a female during the evening. Calm, rested, beautiful, bright, and shining. The lights of the tall downtown buildings like jewelry reflected beautifully in the water. It seems the city is all decked up, ready to go to an evening party. Softer compared to the day. More beautiful, more peaceful.

Strength, power, and action being the main attribute during the day.

Beauty, softness, and calm being the main attribute at night.

Some people would have objections with the stark gender differentiations here, but I thought this was a very interesting observation. Men in general are strong and women in general are softer and petite. I have never really seen inanimate objects as living beings with certain characteristics, but come to think of it, it does make a lot of sense.

What do you think?



I just realized that the increasing numbers in my car odometer give me as much joy and satisfaction as the increasing number on my blogometer. For both record how much I have come along and have traveled in my journey.

Often I compare driving and blogging as two feats, two achievements I have. A driver for 5 months and a blogger for a little less than 5 years, both were started with a lot of skepticism, during times of personal crisis. While I have driven for about 8,000 miles, I have had some 3/10th of a million viewers . Of course these numbers are in approximation, but to me they symbolize personal growth and experience gained in life.


Monday, January 11, 2010

A Class Apart

New year brought with it something good for me after all – an opportunity to teach a class at the local university. It so happened that these people were looking for a guest lecturer to teach a single class on the concepts of air pollution. Given that I am happy to teach anytime (provided I know the concepts), and with all the time I have these days, I was more than willing to pitch in.

So here I was teaching a class after almost 3.5 years. And it was different. First, it was not my school back in India, and this was just one class. This was my first ever teaching experience in the US, even if it was just one class for an hour. The kids were not really kids, they were undergraduate students who don’t really scream and shout and do funny things in class (like my kids back in Kolkata used to). Air pollution is somewhat vague a topic and one could babble for months. So I had to carefully make my slides, knowing where to draw the line so that the students didn’t doze off right after the lunch break, and being extra-prepared for the Q&A session. Overall, things went well.

I realized that even after all these years, I really enjoy teaching, going to a class prepared with content to talk about. Perhaps the year will bring much more with it, more opportunities, more classes, more chances to get back my rightful place in the industry. Till then, I am ready to bask in the glory of whatever little opportunities I get to do things useful, and things I enjoy doing.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

On A Musical Note

I have been experimenting with my time, doing the things I have wanted to but never did so far. Yesterday I started my classical vocal weekly lessons. A friend of mine who gives music lessons agreed to teach me. It has been one of the better things I have done for myself in a long time.

The sight of the harmonium opened floodgates of memories from childhood. My (late) grandfather (dadu) was a classical singer and used to riyaaz (practice) every evening. Ma insisted I learn from him, but even as a 6 year old, I used to insist that dadu teach me Bollywood songs and not classical music. I was just a naughty kid, avoiding the chore of sitting quietly and singing. Dadu had said listening is half learning, so what if I did not sing with him. Whenever I was ready for music, I would come back to it.

My teacher told me the same thing yesterday, and insisted I take one class and then just sit and listen for another higher level class. Because listening was half learning.

When dadu passed away, the riyaaz stopped and the harmonium was put away. However years later, ma started learning classical music, and the riyaaz culture started again.

The 2 hours of riyaaz yesterday transported me to a different world. It gave me goose bumps, reminding me of all those childhood evening and my dadu. Sure my rusty voice cracked at the lower notes and I had a difficult time singing and holding on to my breath at the same time. I think I croaked like a frog at times, especially since I can sing higher notes but not lower notes. But the whole atmosphere, the music of the harmonium, the sa-re-ga-ma, the aaroh and the avaroh was amazing. Once again, I developed a deep sense of respect for the singers. I have sung hindi movie songs in gatherings, but classical singing is of a totally different level. Like ma said, if the classical base is strong, sure you could sing any song of the world.

I wondered how the permutation and combination of the 7 notes (sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni) could produce so many songs and music notes. I was never told the difference between singing from the throat and singing from the belly before. And it was true, that one could choose to sing from the throat or from the belly. I regretted the fact that I have not used my time so far in the pursuit of music. Sure I like to sing and sing in tune, but I could have bettered myself with all the practice. Anyway, it’s never too late.

If there is something you have wanted to do for a while but have been postponing due to a demanding job, an inflexible spouse, or difficult in-laws, I’d strongly recommend you to go do it. Music is a gift I’ve received from both sides of my family. All I had to do was brush up my basics (and my froggy voice) a little bit, and I was up there singing and enjoying every bit of it. If there is a gift you have but haven’t developed it, you should go do it. Unlike people who say life is short and you’d die without doing things you wanted to, I say life is so long that you’d actually live to regret the things you wanted to do but didn’t do.