Saturday, October 30, 2010

Plane of Reality

I have a Chinese girl in my class I meet once every week. The first day we met at the orientation, she told me that she was worried about the English spoken and written test every incoming graduate student has to take before they start their research. She asked me if I had similar concerns. I didn’t know the “right” answer to tell her. Yes, I was concerned, but that was not because of the test. It was because I would have to wake up on a Sunday morning and drag myself to write the exam by 8 am. I was more annoyed that the school is not convinced about my English written and spoken abilities, and I could not sleep till late on that Sunday.

I passed the test. She didn’t. It meant that she would have to take an English class once every week for the rest of the semester. Bummer ! If the class load and the research and TA-ing wasn’t bad enough, the last thing you wanted was extra class load. I empathize. The next time we met in class, she came running to me asking to me which day I was assigned to for the English class. I observed that she had assumed I had not passed the test. It broke my heart to tell her that I had, and didn’t need extra English coaching. She didn’t do a good job to hide her disappointment. She looked confused that how could I be exempt from it when she was forced to take it.

Ever since every time I meet her for my research class, she asks me how are my English classes going. It seems her perceived reality has accepted that being an international student, I too had failed my English class. I felt sorry for her, but it unnerved me a little. Last week when I met her in class, I saw her talking to an American student. She was telling her how difficult this part of the semester is with midterms and then pointed to me asked me if I was having a hard time with the extra English class. It seems it had never registered in her mind that I was not taking any English classes. Amidst rectifying her yet once again (to which she looked a little startled), some strange realization dawned on me too. I realized that we all live in our own realities, and sometimes the plane of our realities might not match that of others. Does that mean there is no concept of absolute reality? What is unreal to me might very well be someone else’s reality. Often we hear people recounting stories when we think to ourselves, “This is not possible, is it true?” This is because the things we do not believe in are the things that are beyond the scope of “our” reality.

This girl was clearly upset, not just because she has to take extra classes, but because her reality might be that she thinks she has failed herself by failing the test. So at some point, her reality started to believe that as a non-native English speaker, I had failed the test too, maybe in order to make her pain or guilt less bearable. Whenever she asked me about my English classes, she was very empathetic, and it was clear that she was not making fun of me but genuinely believed that I had failed the test. What she thinks might not be the truth, but it is her reality that she has spun around herself to make it less painful for her.

I looked back at my life and realized I might have done this at some point too, though not to this drastic extent. I might have known things which might not have been true, and on being corrected, I must have asked, “Oh, why did I believe it otherwise then?” Which means while 2 plus 2 is always 4, it might not always be 4 in some of our realities. It is a scary thought, and an equally interesting one. I would love to read up more about psychology and realities if I can find some interesting books. Think about it, how fascinating it would be if each of us lived in our respective realities, and there was no concept of an absolute truth. So though in reality I am a poor, Indian graduate student, in my mind, I could be a princess, a Hollywood actor, or a heart surgeon. Is that what we call the beginning of incipient lunacy?

I am not talking about my classmate anymore, and don’t mean any offence to any non-native English speaker, but why is it that we think some people are crazy? Is it because their plane of reality doesn’t match with ours? How many times have you heard your friend complaining how her famous mathematician husband doesn’t hear what she says, forgets to do household chores when asked to, and lives in his own reality solving problems? Is this how ideas in fantasy movies are conceived, by thinking of ideas that might not align with the realities of most people? My grandmother still does not believe that it is possible for someone to travel around the world alone and not be lost. She also doesn’t believe that it is impossible to board a wrong flight. Like people sometimes get on the wrong train, my grandmother believes it is possible to get on the wrong plane; that you can actually get on a plane and realize after talking to the other passengers that the plane is going to Tokyo while you have a ticket to London. It is her reality. I don’t buy it, I don’t believe it, but it is her reality nevertheless.

Maybe we have our own realities because it makes coping with stressful situations easier. If so, then are dreams borne out of our subconscious realities? So many times I have seen dreams about things I would not admit to in my conscious state. I often dream of snakes when I am stressed. This might be because in real life, I am very scared of snakes, and will neither visit the reptile section of the zoo, nor will get into a discussion involving snakes. Then why do I see something in my dreams that I am scared of in reality? Is this because I push away those things I am scared of in my sub-conscious, and while dreaming when our mental guards are down, those issues come up? Who knows !

If you have read a good book about psychology, dreams, or realities, please let me know.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Final thank you of the day

There is a lot of predictability in my everyday life. Every morning I wake up late and run to catch the bus on time. Every night before I go to sleep, I pray that the following day would bring in new hope and new opportunities. These days I try to reach the department by 8 am every day. These days I usually spend about 12 hours in the department. Every night as I start from my department, it is late and empty. I walk the hallway, get out of the building, walk for a few minutes, and wait for the bus to take me home. It is all very predictably programmed. Every night the bus arrives after a few minutes of wait. I wait for people to get off the bus. Then I board the bus. I start to go for the last seat, which is my favorite. While walking towards it, I expect the driver to start the bus and for me to be jolted out of my motion and lose balance, a phenomenon that happens when you are moving inside a vehicle that accelerates when you are holding on to nothing, best described by Newton’s law of inertia. Every night, I reach my favorite seat all the way at the back, turn, and sit. Every night, the bus starts only after I am seated. He is not obliged to do it, but he still does.

Every night, I say my last thank you to the bus driver mentally, for politely waiting till I have found a seat and for not letting me trip by starting to drive before I have found a seat.

Thank you.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Efficiency Resolution

It was a new year party. We were transitioning into 2009. Amidst intervals of taking tequila shots and merrymaking, it was time to do the ritualistic new year resolution announcement. Everyone had to drink to a resolution and make a resolution. Everyone laughed about how resolutions were meant to be broken and stood good only a couple of days into the new year. People eventually reverted to their old habits, screw resolutions! As usual, someone said (s)he wanted to lose weight. Someone said (s)he wanted to get married. Someone said (s)he wanted to be a better person. But someone said something I remember vividly till date. (S)he said (s)he wants to stick to the resolution of an 8 hour of work schedule every day.

That’s it? Short and sweet, isn’t it? What was the big deal about sticking to an “I will work for 8 hours a day” resolution? Or so I thought then. But trust me, I am reminded of the resolution every day. I am not sure if the person who made it was able to stick to it, but I haven’t been able to. We like to fool ourselves believing that we spend a large chunk of our time and energy working, but do we really? In class, we check Facebook messages in the name of multitasking. At office, we check personal emails a hundred times, put on music, read the news, comment on our favorite blogs, and speak on the phone. Every time we are given an assignment we do not like to do, we let ourselves get distracted, go out for a walk, drink a glass of water, feel hungry or feel the sudden urge to talk to parents in India, or quickly scan who is doing what on Facebook. And if that is not enough, there are youtube videos to watch, friends dying to talk to you online, and news feeds on who scored a century recently or how the economic policies of the world is affecting the automobile industry. We feel that dying urge to be a part of heated discussions, comment on topics, wish our friends a happy birth day, like status updates like “Life is good, having fun in Hawaii” on FB, and read gossip about others we are better off not knowing. We check the weather and check fluctuation in flight prices from Texas to Florida, though Heaven knows we have no plans of visiting either Texas or Florida for the next few years. Some go a step further and look for online shopping deals, scan for furniture ads on craigslist that they would never buy, or simply forward feel-good emails to others on the pretext that, “If you do not forward this to 15 goats in the next 5 minutes, everyone in your extended family from Ullhasnagar to Jhumri Talaiya is doomed.

On an average, if a person spends 8 hours sleeping, 8 hours relaxing at home (that includes cooking, eating, watching TV, taking a shower, courting, socializing, having and taking care of kids, writing blogs, making travel plans, etc.) and 8 hours at the workplace, no prizes for guessing what time slot we choose to sacrifice for our distractions. Sleep time is our “own time”, and so is the time we spend at home. How is the math of doing quality work going to happen then?

It’s not a preaching post, it’s a self-realization post. I realized (shamefully) that I know how many common friends I have with a certain person “X” over the top of my head, and might also be able to tell you that although I know a friend’s friend only distantly and have never been formally introduced to her, I could tell you where she works, her pet’s name, what car she drives, and where she shops. But if you asked me to name the top five journals in my field or the top research papers on a particular thing I am working on, I will be mumbling, stuttering, scratching my head, and having a difficult time trying to organize my thoughts. So for the last few weeks, I have resolved to reach the department by 8 am and try to be productive. I have tried working in close proximity to my advisor and my other colleagues to take advantage of the Hawthorne effect (people consciously improving their efficiency simply because they know they are being watched). I have tried clicking on non-academic websites for lesser number of times. I have tried not taking phone calls or replying to personal emails. Less FBing, no youtubing, no blogging, and no unnecessarily checking the weather of a place where I do not even live. I won’t claim I have seen outstanding results, but I am still trying to better myself. Every time I need a break, I try taking a walk by the campus instead of checking updates of people I have no business knowing. I am yet to go a long (really long) way before I achieve desired results. But it never hurts to try, does it?

I feel great at the end of the day when I have worked on something, finished something, or achieved a target (which doesn’t happen very often). But some days are wasted, meaning distraction sets in and by the end of the day, you feel horrible armed with meaningless knowledge of who is going where on Thanksgiving and who is drinking what kind of coffee at Starbucks. These are the days I feel most frustrated and useless. Building self control is an exercise that takes time, discipline, and motivation. Which brings me back to the resolution my friend talked about earlier. This is the only resolution I have felt true to its core, and most difficult to follow. “My resolution is to spend 8 hours at work every day just focusing on work”. Sounds very simple, but try doing it. You might perhaps not succeed fully, but you will definitely end up knowing a few things about your self-control (or the lack of it) that you might not openly admit to.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Feeling Driven

A milestone was achieved in my driving history yesterday. I drove a record of 300 miles in 5 hours, crossing a few major east coast cities, non-stop. This was my first long drive on the east coast, and once I started from New Jersey in the morning, I didn’t stop for once till I reached my destination. Not even a restroom break or a refueling break.

I think driving gives you an amazing perspective about things. There you are sitting controlling the wheel, accelerating, and occasionally braking. It is tiring, but not demanding. For most of my drive on I-95, I was driving at 80 mph. I am telling you all this because this is a first time achievement for me. As I drove from 9 am to 2 pm non-stop, cruising through all the cities and stopping only to pay the toll four times, I got a lot of time to think about things. I started to think about my PhD differently. In some ways, I think I should treat my PhD just like this drive. Start with a plan, be focused, and don’t stop till you have reached your destination. There would be obstacles and wonderful distractions, big cities and lovely places to stop by, but if your goal is to reach home by 2 pm, you would neither think of getting off the freeway near Philadelphia to visit the city, or briefly stop at Baltimore to meet that long lost friend you promised you will meet 5 years ago. Throughout the drive, I focused on being at the leftmost (fastest) lane, passing (overtaking) other cars, and making sure the cops didn’t catch me for driving constantly at 15 mph above speed limit. I didn’t make resolutions that I would not stop and instead make the trip in 5 hours. Instead, all I told myself is I will keep going till I could physically and mentally do it, drive safe, and see how much I can go before I need a break. The estimated arrival time on the GPS kept pushing me for doing better and shortening the time.

All this might mean nothing to you, and it totally makes sense if it doesn’t. Just that ever since I made that trip yesterday, I am on a high. I feel elated, and a strange sense of achievement. Last year this time I could not drive from Seattle to Portland on my own (a 3 hour trip, 180 miles in all maybe). This year I have broken all of my past driving records. And ever since, I have been comparing that journey to the PhD journey I have recently embarked on. Now all this is theory, and there is always a huge difference between theory and implementation. Yet it never hurts to analyze and surmise.