Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Going Places

Traveling is the single most hobby I have pursued seriously, followed by writing. So I thought it would be great to summarize my year in terms of travel. If nothing, I can add it to my resume, or look at this post 30 years down the line when I am withering and arthritic, and smile at the happy memories I built for myself.

Travel 2010

Countries travelled- 6.

U.S.A., India, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy.

Cities travelled- Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, Orlando, Kolkata, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Rome, Sicily.

U.S. states travelled- 6.

A new U.S. state explored never before- Florida.

National Parks- 3 (Mount Rainier National Park, Crater Lake National Park, Everglades National Park).

New experiences-

Hiked an active volcano (Mount Etna in Sicily). Hiked a volcanic crater (Crater Lake National Park, OR).

Biggest obsession- Watching sunrise and sunsets. I think I am done with my obsession for collecting magnets. I lose count of the numerous occasions when I set the alarm to wake up early and run to catch the sunrise. I overslept and missed classes, but not sunrises.

Dream Destinations 2011 (Places never traveled before)

Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, Utah National Parks, Beaches of North Carolina.

New states traveled every year

2006- Washington, Nevada, Washington DC, Virginia, Oregon

2007- New York, New Jersey, Maryland

2008- Texas, Pennsylvania, California

2009- Hawaii, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Delaware

2010- Florida


Summing Up 2010

1. What did you do in 2010 that you had never done before?

Travelled Europe.

Moved coasts.

Drove 1200 miles in Florida.

Got a speeding ticket worth $300.

Met an old old friend.

Visited India the first time ever since I moved.

Got myself a Netflix account.

Got myself published.

Performed with a dance group.

Started using an iPad.

2. Did you keep your new years resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I don’t make new year resolutions unless they are travel related. I almost definitely never keep them.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

I don’t think so.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Thankfully, no.

5. What date from 2010 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?


6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Motivating myself to get back to graduate school again.

7. What was your biggest failure?

I have been unable to change certain things in my life for the better.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?

I twisted my right foot and injured my ligament while walking down the cobbled streets of Sicily.

9. Whose behavior merited celebration?

Baby Kalyani’s. She transformed from a baby to a toddler. She repeated everything I taught her. She became my favorite student.

10. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

Let’s not get there.

11. Where did most of your money go?

Traveling, like it always does.

12. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Visiting Europe. Guiltily so, more than visiting India.

13. What song will always remind you of 2010?

Only Hope from A Walk To Remember.

Tujhe Bhula Diya from Anjana Anjani.

Ainvain from Band Baaja Baraat.

14. Compared to this time last year, are you happier or sadder?

No idea. Happier in many ways and sadder in many ways. Last year this time, I was in Seattle. Now, I am vacationing in California.

15. What do you wish you had done more of?

I wish I had worked harder toward getting back in shape. I wish I had blogged more.

16. What do you wish you had done less of?


17. How did you spend Christmas?

With my best friend and a bunch of other wonderful people I recently met through my blog (can you believe it?), with great dinner and hanging out at their place late enough for Santa Claus to fall asleep.

18. Did you fall in love in 2010?

Yes. With places. With people. With my life.

19. How many one night stands?

Never mind J Too old to have one night stands.

20. What was your favorite TV program?

South Park. As always.

21. What was the best book you read?

The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.

The element- Ken Robinson.

Some from the Nicholas Sparks collection.

22. What was your greatest musical discovery?

None I can think of.

23. What did you want and get?

A trip to Crater Lake before I left Seattle.

24. What did you want and not get?

A 3,000 mile cross-country road trip from west to east, that never happened.

25. What was your favorite film of this year?

Plenty actually. Wept buckets after every Nicholas Sparks movie. Loved American Beauty, The and Painted Veil.

26. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 29. I spent the night hiking with my injured feet, watching the northern lights near a place close to Seattle. That was a unique experience.

27. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Nothing more than what I already have. A new place to explore. A new life as a student. Lots of friends made. Meeting my family after 4 years. What more could I ask for?

28. What kept you sane?

Netflix and travel plans.

29. Who was the worst new person you met?

No one.

30. Who was the best new person you met?

I was excited to meet many new people this year, but I will not single out anyone.

31. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010.

Your best friend has another best friend. Watch out what you tell others. Don’t expect people to keep your secrets. Don’t tell anyone something you are not ready to publish in a newspaper.

32. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

I am not a lyrics person. I focus on music.


Thursday, December 23, 2010


The advisor said, “As a researcher, you get paid to think. So think!!!”

I’ve stopped working ever since. All I am doing is thinking J

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Happy Holidays,


Learning to Question

There are many big and small incidents that happen in my otherwise mundane PhD life that I am going to remember years down the line. I am taking my preliminary exam in a month. It’s not a big deal really, but for the fact that I will need to do a couple of things to clear this next hurdle learning opportunity. For one, I need to critique a paper written by the stalwarts of the field. Now the problem with that is, a paper is not like a Facebook wall post that you can “like”, or write something clichéd like “very nice”, “kewl cool”, or ossum awesome”. Every research paper I read seems great to me, and I do end up saying very nice, cool, or awesome in my head. I read the ideas of these stalwarts and go, “Wow, I couldn’t have thought of a better idea myself, in fact, I couldn’t even come up with so cool an idea”. But when I critique it in front of a panel of professors, I am expected to tear the ideas apart and talk about every little thing that could have been done differently, even though I personally believe nothing should have been done differently. Therein lies my plight.

The next part of the preliminary exam involves writing a 15-20 page paper on any particular topic that fascinates me. When I met with my advisor last week to discuss a possible topic, he asked me to think of 10 research ideas, and come up with 10 questions specific to those ideas. I thought it was easy. I was so wrong. I thought of a topic, scratched my head, thought harder, and wrote down 10 questions. I thought I was done. I printed out my questions on a paper and showed it to my advisor.

He never went past the first question. For every two words he read about the question, he had a question for me. “What do you mean?” “How would you measure this?” “What is the predictor variable?” “What is the outcome variable?” “What population are we talking here?” “What are the controlling factors?” “What would be the research instrument?” He had so many questions about my first question that we never made it to the rest. It was clear that I had been unable to frame my research questions properly, the very basis and first step of research. I had never felt so unsure of myself, unable to write something as basic as a research question. It was then that he made me sit with him and gave me the most valuable advice.

“I am not judging you, and everyone has been in the stage you are in right now. You must be very frustrated and in self-doubt. But remember, there is no successful PhD student whose research questions weren't torn apart the first day they sat with their advisor. It happened to me too. Researchers are different from others because we have the skill to come up with unique questions, and design a solution for them. Remember, the research question should be extremely specific. You cannot be throwing broad questions at the universe. I will tell you how to write a research question. You will come up with your questions again.”

With his advice, I started working on the questions again. This time I saw the difference his advice made to my questions. With more than five years of writing experience, and a US masters degree, I was surprised that I could not even frame good research questions. I worked hard that night, keeping in mind every possible rule he had told me about while doing so. The next day, I went to him with my new draft. This time, he found more flaws. But he at least went past the first question. He told me that my significant improvement was evident since he moved past the first question, and he was at least thinking about my research ideas and not just looking at the way my questions were worded. There were more edits for me this time too, but he looked at some of my questions and said, “Here is a paper, another paper, and yes another paper”. It seemed some of my research ideas could actually be written into a paper worth publishing. I went back and looked at my first draft of questions from the previous day. He was right. They did look very unpromising compared to my new draft.

I always assumed that I would do great in something as trivial as coming up with good research questions. I was wrong. Framing a good research question is an art, something that I am yet to master. For every idea of mine my advisor liked, the satisfaction was immense. Seems I am here to design and build a house. And right now I am learning how to rightly pick up the bricks in the first place.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

A future trip to Rodanthe

I can spend hours looking at maps and fantasizing about traveling to an unknown place. Sometimes I come across a name that fascinates me so much that I read up all I can about it. Sometimes I watch a movie and am so enamored by a place that I end up visiting it. That is how Vienna happened to me earlier this summer, after watching the movie “Before Sunrise” multiple times. After hours of walking on the streets of Vienna, I even found the bridge where Jesse and Celine walked while the trains passed by. What a eureka moment that was for me.

I recently watched the movie “Nights in Rodanthe” and have been unable to take my mind off it ever since. Based on a story written by Nicholas Sparks (whose novels have been giving me a lot of wide-eyed, lachrymose nights ever since), there was something magical about the place, and the house where the movie was shot. Leave aside the endearing story plot, the great acting by Richard Gere and Diane Lane, and the heart wrenching realities of life that makes sitting with a box of tissues while watching this movie mandatory. I fell head over heels in love with the location and the house. Everything was so blue, the magnificent coasts of North Carolina, the sea, the birds, the wooden bridge, and the lovely house. You should see the house for yourself, if you are an admirer of nice houses in movies like I am, you will fall in love with this one (the other house I fell in love with was the one from “The Notebook” that Noah built for Allie, based on a novel written by Sparks again). After watching the movie, I could imagine myself sitting by the beach watching the sunrise and admiring the beauty of the oceans forever.

So, whenever the weather gets better, and there is more sunshine and warmth, I am going to drive down to Rodanthe, no matter how long it takes me. I am going to try finding the house (unless they have dismantled it) and am going to sit by the beach for hours watching the ocean. There is a possibility that perhaps everything was spruced up for the movie and the place is actually not that pretty as it was made to seem in was. I will find that out for myself when I visit the much acclaimed beaches of North Carolina perhaps sometime next year. For now, this movie has given me the name of a random place I never knew existed, that I can look up on the map and drive to. And I so hope the place lives up to my expectations.


Single Bells

While attending a Christmas party where I was invited by a nice couple, I could not help but notice the number of married or to be married couples in the party. I don’t think anyone except two of us were single, and for the other person I am assuming to be single, I just don’t have enough information about his relationship status. A great deal of the party was spent with the women sitting in a group and exchanging stories about the nightmarish India trips, nightmarish because of the unfair distribution of time spent with the in-laws versus the parents. It seemed everyone had a personal story about how they felt treated unfairly because they did not get to spend as much time with their parents as they did with their in-laws. I nodded. I empathized. I also realized that I felt very out of place in that conversation mostly for two reasons. First, I don’t have a set of in-laws to worry spending time with. Second, I hardly visit India. The only time I was in India since 2006, I was there for 3.5 months, and all my time was spent with my family.

As I drove back from the party, I looked at the whiteness of everything in the night light. The snow from the last few days had not melted and in the darkness, it reflected a ghostly shade of white. Those 12 odd miles of drive, I noticed houses in the middle of nowhere decorated with Christmas lights. The whiteness, the darkness, and the Christmas lights gave it a surreal beauty. Not for the first time that evening, I felt very lonely. The houses with little Christmas lights blinking were not just houses, they were homes with families. My party hosts had decorated a beautiful Christmas tree and the 3 year old was thrilled to bits about that. When the 3 year old spotted a camera in my hand, he spent much of his time posing around the Christmas tree and waiting for me to take his pictures. He wasn’t very explicit for a child his age, but I knew he wanted me to take his pictures with the Christmas tree.

No matter how nice people are around me, I have started to feel a little out of place in gatherings. There was a time when friends discussed problems I instantly associated with and felt a part of- exam results, career uncertainties, getting into a good school, boy friend related problems, issues about the latest Farhan Akhtar movie not living up to its expectations, and not getting along with parents. Now, my friends have suddenly shifted gears (or maybe I have) and I no longer identify with their problems- issues with choosing the right baby food or day care, issues with spending time with in-laws during the annual visits to India, issues about pending green card and citizenship applications, issues about your spouse not always agreeing with you, and so on. My friends discuss shops that I have never had the need to go to- Crazy 8, Gymboree, and Baby Gap. I understand where they come from, but I no longer associate with them, just because I haven’t had those issues till now. Life as a single person is neither great, nor bad, but very different from the life of married people. I neither have to worry about how to get along with in-laws, nor do I have to worry about how to balance time between a personal life and a professional life. I could spend all my time in the lab working and still not be answerable to anyone. On the other hand, being single means I cannot bank on anyone in case a visa-related meteor hits my world, I will always need to worry about how I will spend my vacation if all my friends are busy, and will have to be content knowing that I might have to spend most of my time with myself without expecting to be invited to parties hosted by married families for married families. I found it both sadly funny and funnily sad that someone was discussing choreographing a couples dance performance for some upcoming event, and although I am a part of the dance group, people discussed it as if I did not exist. It makes sense, since I don’t have a real life partner to dance with.

I went to the Laundromat after 3 weeks today, and even after 21 days, I had just one basket of clothes needing laundry. As I looked around me, I saw most women struggling to carry 4 times the quantity of clothes that I did, 5 sets of towels, multiple dozen socks, couple of bedspreads, and so on. I looked at piles of clothes in confusion until I realized that these must come from people who had families- husbands, children, and pets that causing 5 sets of towels and 4 times my laundry load. Again, nothing is good or bad, but very different. When you start observing the world around you and find most people doing things the different way (like a senior student telling me the other day that he is taking off for 10 days this holiday season not because he wants to, but because he intends to remain married), you realize how drastically your life has taken a different path from that of the people surrounding you. I neither have to think of buying and decorating a Christmas tree (unless I want to), not do I have to think of planning my days far ahead of time so that I get to maximize the time I spend with my family. I see that as an advantage most of the time, unless there are days when I feel very lonely, or the holiday season is near when I am unable to plan a trip with anyone because everyone has someone they have planned their vacation with.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Five reasons I could never be a food blogger

Have you ever appreciated something, realizing you could never do that yourself even if you tried hard? No matter how much I love to write, I know I could never be a food blog writer. If I try hard, I “might” possibly succeed at romantic fiction, maybe articles like “100 things not to do when you are young and stupid”, or an article or two sometimes about a book I read or a movie I watched that no one else cared about, but never a food blog. I look at amazing food blogs I follow and go wow. I have a fair amount of childhood memories of flipping through the Bengali magazine “Sananda” (Aparna Sen was the editor then), getting straight to the “Rannabanna” section (the food section), which would keep me busy drooling for a while. However, the concept of publishing something you cook for others to see was not an option then. Now it is. Many of my friends successfully maintain food blogs and Facebook pages. It is a treat to go through them and drool. However, I cannot imagine myself having one. The reason? I’ll give you five, and let me know if they don’t seem good enough. I’ll then give you 50 more!

1. Lack of food vocabulary

I might have learnt 20,000 words when I was preparing for the GRE, but when it comes to food vocabulary, I find myself having the vocabulary of a 5 year old. I don’t even understand half the technical terms, that are not really culinary jargon but regular words. Simmer. Season. Croquettes. Couscous. Tortillas. Quesadillas. I don’t even recognize half the vegetables. Chives? Zucchini? Shallots? I could imagine myself confused in a grocery store looking for these vegetables for hours. I recognize what I grew up eating- potatoes (yeah Bengali people eat a lot of them), onions, spinach, and so on. It took me ages to find out that brinjal is eggplant and lady’s finger is okra. Then, I look at phrases and sentences and wonder if I could ever come up with words like these. “Remove with a slotted spoon.” Who the hell knew what a slotted spoon was? “Mix in a non-reactive mixing bowl.” I could never come up with the non-reactive word unless I took a course in culinary classes. To a pot of water add the bay leaf, cardamom, cinnamon, clove and peppercorn and bring to a rolling boil.” What exactly is a rolling boil? “Add a drizzle of oil or ghee. Add a lime wedge.” I like the words drizzle (and not “put”) and lime wedge (instead of “cut a piece of lime”).

2. I don’t know the art of culinary foreplay

I like most food blogs, not only because they put up extremely tempting pictures of good food (that I assume tastes as good as it looks), but also because food bloggers weave a story plot around why they cooked what they did. Who cares about how you make fried fish or baked chicken, you can find the recipe from any number of sources. What makes it interesting are the stories writers weave around their culinary experiences. Stories about how the in-laws were arriving and one had to impress them with their culinary exploits. Stories about how the rainy, romantic weather prompted someone to make hilsa curry. Stories about how there was chicken in the freezer and zucchini in the vegetable tray and you could either go to bed on an empty stomach or make zucchini chicken. If I wrote a food blog, my posts would look like the salt analysis tests you did in chemistry lab years ago. Take salt. Add hydrochloric acid. Check for effervescence. Look for a precipitate. Discard solution. Add more sulphuric acid till you felt nauseated with the smell of rotten eggs that could also be coming from the lunch box of your lab partner and not necessarily out of your test tube. Similarly, take fish. Cut with knife. Fry with oil. Use Burnol if you burn yourself while frying. If it turns out to be too salty, feed it to the neighbors. You see, I fail to weave stories around what I cook, mostly because most of my culinary expeditions are borne out of hunger pangs, and not out of fantasies of food associations and fancy food related stories. I am just too straight to the point. I don’t know the art of culinary foreplay.

3. Culinguistically challenged: Lack of imagination in coming up with food names

I am extremely unimaginative when it comes to thinking of names of dishes. Who knew a little alcohol mixed to lassi makes it a fanciful “lassi with a kick”? Or a lot of green vegetables added to kababs could make it hariyali kabab. I always wondered if chicken do pyaaza is made of 2 onions. Is “murg-e-bahar” called so because it is made of chicken and all the vegetables that were threatening to become bio-weapons in the fridge? “Kadhai chicken” is made in a kadhai, I get it, but so is every other kind of dish I cook. I have never cooked a “kadhai-less kofta” or “bin kadhai ke aloo”. My culinary expert friends would die of shame if I told them I thought shiitake mushrooms are pronounced shit-take mushrooms. I would be very uncomfortable sitting in French or Italian restaurants because I have no clue what they would serve me with promises of making me some “Petite sautee de courgettes a la Grecque” or “ Poco rosso di zucchini con limone et olio della Toscana”. Even if they gave me their simpler English version of Caramelized zucchini medallions in a light citrus reduction”, it is far more complicated for me to decipher the contents compared to something like, say macher jhol, kosha mangsho, or shorshe chingri (shrimp cooked in mustard sauce). I like to keep names simple, and take them at face value. I can’t imagine getting lost in between the rezalas and the marsalas (which sound like bad words or “gaali”s anyway, no matter how good they taste). Sure, I can try coming up with fancy names if you insist, but I don’t think you are going to appreciate them. Trust me, nothing is going to whet you appetite if I called Maggi “White flour curlers”.

4. "Present”ation: I have no future in it

When I see food pictures, I don’t just see the food. I marvel at how well food bloggers excel at “food modeling”. It seems it is not enough to place a dish of steaming hot pasta and take a picture. It is as bad as taking pictures of someone in their home clothes. You need to make them wear better clothes, take them to a scenic location, and then take pictures. Similarly the plate of steaming hot pasta should be accompanied by a flower pot whose flowers should be out of focus in the picture, but still visible enough. The bowl of fish curry should have to green chillies criss-crossed on it as garnishing. The chicken curry should be accompanied by the open pages of a food book again out of focus so that no one knows if you were reading about eggplants and cooking chicken. You need to use props- a recipe book, a glass of wine, a flower vase, a coffee mug, something to make your food look pretty. And just like you cannot make someone model for you wearing the same clothes everyday, you cannot use the same bowl, plate, or cutlery to take pictures of everything you cook. A deep-yellow curry should have a lighter plate in the background. A black bowl will background well against the white raita. Most of the food I cook looks yellow anyway, either because I put too much turmeric, or because my home has yellow lighting and I don’t know how to use my camera well. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t tried. I once made an omelet, put some tomato ketchup on it, and posted the pic on this blog when someone commented, “Hey it seems your omelet is wearing a red bandaid”. It cracked me up, but it told me a lot about my presentation skills. I figured if someone wanted to make an omelet, they could go to “n” number of great food blogs out there. They don’t need to come to sunshine blog.

5. If I cook and garnish and present and take pics and write blogs, when do I get to eat?

This is singlehandedly the most important reason why I could never write a food blog. I am just too busy waiting to hungrily pounce on the food, starting the process when I start cooking, munching on stuff, taking a ladle full of steaming soup even before it is done, picking up that piece of chicken straight from the cooking vessel and ending up with blisters on my tongue. Once my food is cooked and ready on the plate, chances are less that I will decorate it with flowers and fancy props to take pictures. Chances are more that I will pounce on it and finish every bit of it, licking my fingers, licking the bowl, and not stopping till I sensed that loud burp knocking the walls of my food pipe.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bad Car-ma

I got off the bus late night as usual, checking my car in the parking lot like I always do before I walk the 10 steps to my door. Only this time, there was no car. My sunshine car was gone. I realized that people who breakdown hearing a bad news (usually on television) show a bad example of enacting the human emotions. When tragedy strikes, you actually feel nothing for the first few minutes. You just feel numb. When I didn’t see my car, I strangely did not panic. But deep down, I had this sinking feeling, as if someone had punched me in the belly, as if someone close to me had died. My legs felt weak. My car was actually stolen, right from my parking lot. My beloved sunshine car was gone.

Very mechanically, I dialed 911. I called the cops. I gave them the details of my car. My roomie who had overheard the conversation came out to see what happened. I think she panicked more than I did. Very calmly, I talked to the cops. Then I called the owner of the car parked where mine was that morning (we are friends). I had to know when she last parked her car at that spot. Having done that, I got my car keys and went to inspect the parking lot. It was freezing already, but I didn’t feel a thing except that heavy feeling in my chest that my car is gone. I walked the dark parking lot and inspected every car. Yes, my sunshine car was gone indeed.

10 minutes later, my friends who had parked her car came hurriedly in a panic. I was confused that while my roomie and my friends were so panic stricken, I did not feel a thing. I just waited for the cops to arrive.

The cops called back in 30 minutes to tell me that my car has been towed. They gave me the name of the towing company, but could not tell me the reason it was towed. It did not make sense. My car was parked in the paid parking lot and had the validation sticker too. There was no way my car should have been towed. However, I felt a rush of relief. At least my car was not stolen. I called the towing company, but no one answered the phone the first few times. When I finally got to talk to someone, they confirmed that my car was indeed with them and I have to pay them $125 as towing charges.

“But may I know why my car was towed in the first place?”

The guy seemed confused. He said he will get in touch with the driver who towed it and call me back. He didn’t call back. And all this while I kept wondering about the possibilities for the towing of my car. Was it because I hadn’t yet paid for the speeding ticket I got in Florida 2 weeks ago? Was it because I hadn’t changed the Washington license plate still (which did not make sense, my car was in the parking lot and it doesn’t matter the old license plate was still there)? Was it because I hadn’t oil changed and I needed to get the antifreeze level checked? All this I was procrastinating to till my final exams for over. But it did not make sense. Surely, they cannot tow my car because I haven’t done some timely maintenance on it. After 30 minutes of waiting, I called the towing guy again to know the reason. This time he just asked me to come pick up my car.

At midnight, my roomie drove me to the towing company’s parking lot. It was in one of those shady downtown areas behind the train tracks. I wondered if in an attempt to get back my car, I was putting myself out there susceptible to any number of dangers. I was greeted by 3 huge men, and don’t underestimate my sense of proportion when I say huge. Huge, bald, fat red necks about six and a half feet each, I realized if they attacked me, there was no way I was returning home alive. They looked more intimidating that they might have actually been it seems, for when I reached them, one of them smiled a foolish (boka boka in Bengali) smile and told me,

“Sorry, it was a mistake.”

I didn’t think I heard right. A mistake? You mistakenly towed my car? Your mistake made me think my car was stolen. It was due to your mistake that I was in this shady place in the middle of a freezing night.

“Are you sure? How do I know my car will not be towed again?”

“Oh it will not be. Please sign and leave your number. We will call you if it really needs to be towed again. And no need to pay the towing charges.”

So I hopped on to my car and drove back well past midnight.

I felt a mixture of emotions. Confusion, why was my car towed by mistake? Loss, that I thought my car was stolen. Relief, that it was actually towed and not stolen. How do you tow someone’s car by mistake, without any grounds? I guess I don’t have to know now. Sunshine car is back, and that is all that matters. But for one realization I had. I think my car means a lot more to me than I thought it did. It’s a vital part of my life now, like a family member. I think I’d be very miserable without my sunshine car any day. And I cannot wait for summer next year when I can start going places with my sunshine car again J


Friday, December 10, 2010

Carrier Thoughts

As a researcher in education, I make a living these days learning skills to familiarize myself with educational issues. This means that while in the short run, I can identify educational issues, in the long run, I should be will be able to come up with workable solutions for them. One of my not so many strengths in this field is the exposure I have had to the Indian system of education for 25 years, that gives me a somewhat unique perspective on things (or so I like to think). For the rest of this post, I will blabber about things in context to the Indian educational system. Kudos to you if you have enough patience to sit through the end of this post. You don’t have to, especially because it is a Friday night (and not all souls need to work on bettering the educational system alone in the lab on a Friday night), but your opinion on this will be encouraging.

The choice of science as a career is as much a social choice as an individual choice. Opting for science is usually, but not always a conscious decision at the individual level. It happens through layers of conditioning at the individual, family, community, and societal level. In Indian communities more renowned as close-knit communities, a career choice is usually made based upon individual preferences, peer pressure, family values, and even societal obligations. This means you aim for that coveted seat in an IIM not only because you want it, but also because your papa, mama, chacha, dada, bua, tai, and perhaps even the bai and the doodhwaala wants it for you. For some students, choosing science is a way of fulfilling one’s quest of gaining an understanding of physical phenomena through observations, experimentation, and inferences (there was very few students exclusively in this category I would think, the last one being Albert Einstein, who was not Indian). For others, choosing science is a way of meeting one’s individual goal of a perceived notion of a better and successful career leading to better employment (and sometimes most of the times better matrimonial) opportunities. While personal interest plays a major role in students choosing a career, other amalgamating factors familial, socio-cultural, economic, and institutional in nature play a significant role in influencing their career choices.

However, not all students who choose sciences are a good fit to the programs of their choice (how else do you explain science in high school followed by say bachelors in English?). This leads to high number of professional program attrition and significant dissatisfaction and failure after investing time and money. It would thus be useful to get a broader perspective of the personal, familial, and societal factors influencing an individual’s career decision.

Alternatively, it is essential to understand the factors that lead students to reject science as a career option. Does fear of mathematics lead students to opt out of sciences in college even though they were interested in physics or computer sciences? Is fear of numbers a deterrent factor, so much so that you ended up studying say Hindi even though you wanted to study statistics? Does studying science always lead to better employment opportunities and a more fulfilling life? Is individual perception of a successful career choice a function of one’s income (the general perception being science students end up with higher paying jobs than non-science students)? An in-depth understanding of these perceptions evolving around students and society can help educationists understand the gamut of factors that students as decision makers consider before making a conscious career choice. The reason? To maximize the number of students who make conscious career decisions and succeed without having to opt out of a specialization before finishing their degree.

The other pressing problem I can think of would be the underrepresentation of women in certain branches of science, especially engineering. Shall we blame it on the patriarchial society as always, or try to investigate if there are motivational issues as well? Whatever it is, the skewed nature of gender distribution in certain branches of science is disturbing.

The overarching question that emerges is whether social status, better paying jobs, and interest in science are the main reasons why students study science. The overall aim? Maybe to ensure that students are more aware of their career choices when they make them. Maybe to encourage more students to take up sciences through effective teaching methods. Maybe to ensure that students make career choices not only based on social perception but also through interests. Maybe to ensure that ideally, “selection” and not “elimination” is the criteria for education. Or maybe to take a break and think of something different on a Friday evening when others have a life and you are slogging alone in the lab for your exams, fooling yourself into believing that someday YOU will be that educationist who will bring about radical changes (for good hopefully), who the society will look up to.

On this note, I will leave you to carry these ideas in your head and think about them (hence the title of the post, “carrier thoughts”). Or maybe don’t bother. Go enjoy that drink with friends while you still have a life J


Sunday, December 05, 2010

It’s the season to be jolly

During my 4 years of stay in the U.S., I seem to have developed a love-hate relationship for winters. I can give you more reasons for hating winters than for liking winters. Winters in the U.S. are cold, damp, harsh, white, lifeless, leafless, rainy, and snowy. The trees have already shed their leaves and everything looks barren and lifeless. You can’t really go to a nearby beach without freezing blue, you cannot drive to a nearby national park. Forget national park, every driving to the nearest grocery story will take you a while because you need to warm up your car’s engine well enough, get rid of the sheen of ice that forms on the windshield, and all this while you freeze inside the car. Of course, it is different for people who live in Florida or Southern California, but most of the U.S. don’t get to live in Florida or Southern California. Be it Seattle or the east coast, you are stuck wherever you are, unable to see the sun for days.

I remember a side story as I type this. More than 4 years ago, I had received a couple of admits from different schools. Two of them happened to be very highly sought after schools in my field. However, I had no idea about those schools. I did an informal sample survey when most people told me place A rained a lot while place B snowed a lot. That is how I chose Seattle over Ann Arbor.

Anyway, I see people eagerly waiting for the winters, and I wonder why. For one, you are required to wear clothes than weigh more than you do. You need to make sure all your orifices are properly covered, ears, nose, even eyes. It feels horrible to go outside and feel chills and shivers. It’s a pity that the 3 most important holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years) come one after the other during the winters. Flight prices are so expensive, and the choices for sunny places are so less, you end up staying home although you have more vacation than you would at any other time. You freeze, your car freezes, your social life freezes, it is not really a happy situation. To make it worse, most of your better friends temporarily migrate to India for a few weeks, and here you are stranded in the middle of nowhere with all your friends gone. To make it worse, you sit at home getting updates on how these fair weather cold weather friends are having alu’r chop, beguni, and fuluri back in India. As a kid, I romanticized the fantasy settingofn many English novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights where everything was cold, white, and gloomy, where the protagonists drank soup and read story books by the fireplace. I romanticized the idea of walking in the snow, like they showed in Bollywood movies, hurling snow balls at others and singing and dancing. Sadly, I have matured, seen the world for myself, and no longer reflect the fantasies portrayed in English novels or Bollywood movies.

I hate winters for more reasons than I love winters. However, there are a handful of reasons why winters become not only bearable, but memorable too. I associate winters with piping hot chicken soup. Winter for me is sitting by the fireplace reading books and drinking hot cider. My friend Chirag introduced me to so many things that I love doing in winters. I love the culture of doing office work or school assignments in coffee shops, something I do in winters since there are not many places to go then. I love hot apple cider. I love gingersnap latte from Starbucks, something you get ONLY during the winter holiday season. I love the way homes are decorated, little lights flashing and telling me that someone had the enthusiasm to decorate their homes despite the cold. I love seeing decorated Christmas trees. I love Christmas cakes and cookies. I loved visiting Candy Cane Lane in Seattle during the holiday season. Every year, a winter trip to Leavenworth in the snow was a must. The first time it snowed every year, Chirag and I stopped at the nearby Starbucks for coffee, and drove around in unknown neighborhoods in the snow. While there are more options of activities in summer, winter limits those activities and ensures you spread your social radar wide and do more social things like chatting by the fireplace over cups of hot chocolate, meeting people in coffee shops, and go watch people decorate their homes during Christmas. Winter is the time when I thank God that I don’t live in permanently snowed in places like Chicago, Rochester, or Iowa. I buy a Santa cap every year and flaunt it and wear it everywhere. Somehow, I always manage to lose it or give it to someone at the end of the season. This has happened thrice in a row now.

I love to see the world go by dressed in red and black. Shopping malls are lit up and Santa Claus is found posing with the babies and the grown-up babies. Christmas carols are playing, and festivity is in the air. I usually sit at home and watch the South Park Christmas episodes, or movies like Serendipity and When Harry Met Sally during December. Bath & Body Works has a huge sale and I pamper myself buying more body care products than I need. I love to sit back and watch people in enthusiasm, little babies all dressed nice and pretty, happily playing in the snow and dancing around. Life becomes a carnival in motion. I miss driving to parks and traveling during the winters. I hate the cold and the dampness I feel. However, winter gives me a chance to sit back and watch other people in merrymaking. It also gives me a chance to wear those nice coats in red and black I have collected for myself all these years.

Happy brrrrr winters J


Friday, December 03, 2010

If ONLY I could ….

It started when a friend’s friend’s friend posted an album captioned, “Only my baby”. Knowing how the biological processes of reproduction work (unless you are an asexually reproducing amoeba or a hermaphrodite earthworm), I was not sure if babies could be made singlehandedly. Ideally, I should have forgotten about it and moved on, but the junk folder in my brain (which strangely occupies a large disc space) kept playing with the combination of semantics intended. Only my baby? My only baby? My baby only? I realized how the meaning changed each time I repositioned the word “only”. That is when realization struck. Of course using the word “only” out of place is a practice followed by so many of us “Indian English” speaking people who first think in our native language, and then translate it in our heads. This is “only” to emphasize the meaning all the more and hence add only, which, far from emphasizing anything at all, only screws up the meaning left and right. For the next few days, I kept an ear on what I heard from people speaking “Indian English”, and my realization seemed so profound.

“You are leaving now only?” Not only was it a question that uniquely started with “You are” (and not “are you”), the person, in order to intensify the meaning, added an “only” to stress on the urgency. Ekhono I jachcho? Abhi ja rahe ho kya? Obika jauchu? You are leaving now only? Made perfect sense J

The friend, in an attempt to show how much she loved the other friend and how similar they were, ended up saying, “I am like you only”. He called her wondering where they were and she told him urgently, “We are at home only”. They were in a bitchfest, bitching about every random thing when she emphasized her point and said, “Those people are like that only”. The last time someone told me, “I will marry you only”, I had quickly replied saying, “But I will not marry you only”. I don’t know if he thought I intended to marry multiple people, or I was simply turning him down, but you do realize wrong and inappropriate English usage is a big turnoff for me, no matter how noble your intentions of bonding are. The good part is, all the emotions captured in these statements could be suitably delivered without the use of the word “only” after every line. The bad part is, not many of us consciously realizd that. What to do, we are like that only. But the great part it, it makes reading random Facebook conversations so hilarious.

Did I tell you that I was shocked to hear one of our senior teachers in Kolkata say, “If you boys don’t work hard, you will remain like this only”. Coming from a literature graduate and masters degree holder with double digit years of teaching experience, I was disappointed. And “only” is not the only word we use wrongly. Remember the last time you were introduced at someone’s party as someone else’s cousin sister (and not cousin)? Especially remember how the word cousin was enunciated as “kaa-sin”? Remember when someone asked you, “Will you go no?” (Tum jaoge na?). I know I am not supposed to make fun of such people, but I am not making fun of people. I am just making profound observations J What to do, I am like that only.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

The World of Secrets

I don’t understand much of technology, but an innovative idea of art always excites me. I don’t understand why I should trade my normal flip phone for an iphone when all I need a phone is for talking. That is how techgnorant I am. However I get very excited when I come across a blog that is different,or a particular way something is sketched, or discover a certain book written differently. When I discovered Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, I was amazed at the way the book was conceptualized. Last week something similar happened. I discovered a website called postsecret dot com. Ever since, I have been hooked to it. As I read all of it, I wondered why I did not think of such an idea before. It is so very simple, yet so empowering.

Ever felt you are surrounded with secrets that haunt you? Secrets that you think no one should know, yet you are eager to share? Secrets of a hurtful childhood? Memories of the first kiss? Maybe the first time you did something mean to someone? Broke a flower vase? Harassed the neighbors? Stole something for fun? Did something otherwise considered taboo? Had voices in your head tell you something inappropriate? Wanted to say to your scatterbrained teacher what you thought of her? You get the point, right?

The idea is simple. Write down your secret in a postcard. Decorate it the way you want it to. Mail it to an address in Maryland, and it will get published. While you remain anonymous, your secret is out there for the world to read. The idea thrilled me. I made a mental note and came up with so many secrets I would want to share anonymously. Why do I hate this and this. Why do I like such and such thing. What do I think of you. What I don’t think of you. It’s so liberating and empowering, writing down your secret out in the open for you to read, and remain anonymous while the world reads it. It seems they have a couple of books published with people’s secrets in them. I immediately checked the book catalog at the library and got hold of their first book. It was more of a pictorial book with picture postcards and their secrets published. I could not put down the book till I finished it, homework and assignments be darned. I had finished the book in one evening. Ever since, I have been sniffing to get my hand on the other books.

I love that it is something so simple, yet so empowering and healing. I cannot tell about you, but I am definitely going to have fun reading others secrets. And no, I am still not telling you my secrets. But for the fact that I love listening to cheesy double entendre Bhojpuri songs while no one is looking J