Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shaken on a 5.8 scale

I experienced a 5.8 on Richter scale earthquake today. A first time experience for me. How did it feel? I was in the department, working on some papers, when it felt like a team of horses running and stampeding all around you. The glass window panes were shaking, and shaking badly. Within seconds, realization hit, and we ran toward the exit doors. Soon a huge group had gathered outside the building. It was the first day of the fall semester, and many were in classes. Professors and students had evacuated the building, and together we watched the glass windows shake. However, nothing shattered or broke. Even afternoon classes were not cancelled (much to my disappointment). Everyone was back to business, though unknown people kept making small talk, referring to the earthquake. I walked to the two libraries to collect a few non-academic, fictional novels, and both times, the librarians asked how it was, experiencing an earthquake of this magnitude. The irony is, living in the Pacific Northwest (an earthquake prone region) for 4 years, I had never experienced anything like this. However, this one seems to have shaken up more than half of the east coast.

I came home to discover (much to my relief) that everything in my room looked the way it was supposed to be. The mess in my room was more due to the procrastination of unpacking suitcases. Not a single picture had moved off its frame, not a single book had displaced. However, as I sit and work in my room, I felt two more minor tremors in the last hour or so. This time, I do not know if I am imagining things, or if it is just the couple next door.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

30 Rock(s)

Earlier this month, I finally did what I have dreaded the last 5 years. I left my twenties and stepped into my thirties. Not that I particularly had a choice, and not that someone came knocking at my door asking me if I was ready to be in my thirties, or if time should freeze for a while. Turning thirty came with a lot of contemplation, reflection, and introspection. If I continue to live the healthy life that I have lived so far, I would like to think this is where people break for the interval or half-time in movies. Of course, no one knows for sure.
I wonder how I would sum up my life. I wonder if I wrote a book off my life, how it would read. Certain times it has been a joy ride. Sometimes it has been painful. There have been achievements, yes. There have been failures and disappointments as well, lots actually. Did I get everything I had hoped for? Perhaps yes. Yes, there are certain things that I wish had never happened, or had happened differently. Such is life.
I wasn’t really trying to summarize my blessings, but I started to think of all those things, those eventful moments I have at 30 that I am thankful for, and all those things I wish I did. I am primarily an academically driven person, and I am thankful that my academics always got priority. I never had to choose work over academics because there was a dearth of money. I am immensely thankful for that. I have had an excellent education, although measuring education in terms of degrees defeats the purpose of education in itself. I have been fortunate enough to have two masters degrees, and to experience both, the Indian and the American system of education. I have been closely associated with two reputed research driven R01 universities in the US. I consider myself amongst the fortunate who came to the US as a graduate student, and got the opportunity to study without having to pay for it. I don’t think the experience would have been any better had I come for work on-site. My academic trajectory has exactly been the way I wanted it to be. I wanted to move to the US for academics (and not for work), and that is exactly how it turned out to be. Currently, I have a US degree to boast of, and another terminal degree in the making.
Traveling has played a significant part in my interest and development. I have lived and traveled in 3 continents. Sometime in life, I discovered the joys of solo, independent traveling as compared to traveling in herds, and have singly backpacked dozens of places. Along with travel came the interest in photography. Over the last few years, I have tried to better my photographic skills, and feel very special when a particular picture I took is recognized or appreciated. I am fluently conversant in 4 languages, and have workable knowledge of 2 more languages. I am proud that I got rid of my unfounded fears and learned to drive. I love my car (and camera) as much as I would love my family, and in the last 2 years, I have driven roughly a little less than the distance of the circumference of the earth at the equator (about 22,000 miles). I have visited 18 American states, 10 American national parks, and a handful of the wonders of the world. My first flight experience was 5 years ago, when I got to sit in the cockpit of the plane for hours as we flew over Turkey. I love visiting corners, and have been to the north western most and southernmost tip of continental US. I have had 2 full time jobs, one as a teacher and the other as a researcher, and survived a lay off during the American economic depression. I know functional salsa, and have performed on stage in Seattle 4 times, twice for dance performances and twice for a play.
I have spent 26 birth days with family, which is great. I have successfully managed to blog for the last 6 years. An activity that started out of fun and the need to do something with the extra time I had after graduating college soon became a driving motivation for me. I love my evolving sense of humor I have developed over the years, bordering on biting sarcasm mostly. I really like the way I see the world, myself included, and make fun of things around me. this wouldn’t have happened without the practice of writing for years.
I have had a brief (really brief) stint with modeling, when I modeled for a line of products. Don’t ask me more, I am not particularly proud of being in front of a rolling camera. I have managed to stay single, despite immense societal pressure and peer pressure. Most of my friends are married with school-going children now. I am not against marriage per se, I just didn’t want to marriage to become another one of those things in my check list of things to do before I died. I didn’t want to get into something without entirely being sure I was doing the right thing, just because the rest of the world has gone the same path. I have seen too many relationships going haywire, and till marriage happens, I am very comfortable living alone, globe-trotting confidently, and will not feel weird walking inside a restaurant having a meal just on their own or take a train and travel for hours just happy reading or seeing the world go by them. I would prefer it any day, than wake up beside someone not knowing why I married him in the first place.
On the flip side, there are things that I wish I had done by now. I haven’t read a single Harry Potter book, and haven’t watched a single movie from the Matrix series. I still haven’t visited Delhi, a city I have always wanted to see and know more of. I still haven’t written a book, despite contemplating it for years now. The list of things I wish to do, but still haven’t, is endless. However, beyond my entire list of achievements and disappointments, I consider my greatest achievement to be the fact that I have a job, a work life that defines my identity. I am neither financially dependent, nor work deprived. I would rather be swamped with work, looking for a vacation, than have my life as a vacation with ample time but no direction. Sometime during my twenties, my greatest fear was that I would live in the US, but as a dependent. Although I am a poor graduate student with no green card, multi-storied town house, fancy cars, or the so called achievement of bearing American children (like a friend once pointed out) to boast of, I am glad I steered clear of that dependent route, not succumbing to the panic of staying single.
I have had a great life so far. Fast-paced, eventful, and mostly the way I wanted it to be. But being 30 is not just listing the achievements and disappointments. For me, being 30 is also being wise. At 20, I was exactly the way people at 20 are. I was starry eyed, passionate, energetic, a dreamer, took up challenges, and believed that I could become anyone in life. At 30, I have an idea of probably who I am going to become, and am content with the fact that I will perhaps not become everything I aimed for, and am okay with that. Realistic is what I was not then, and am perhaps learning to be now.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

United (Airlines) We Stand

Dog tired. Dehydrated and feverish. Too exhausted to think and too eager to get home. The long journey had not exactly been a smooth ride. Occasional air pockets. The chicken for lunch at the airport that could be mistaken for leather. The constant fear of dying midair after reading a book about the exact mechanism by which people die during an air crash. The well built man on my left, whose occasional and unintentional brush of the femur sent faint shivers down my spine.

Long flights were not my forte. I would be too glad to reach home, ensconced in the familiar comforts of my bed. After a wait of a few hours, I was only too happy to be able to catch the last leg of my flight back home. I heard an announcement that didn’t exactly ring warning bells first. The flight was overbooked, and they were looking for volunteers to take the flight the next day. In exchange of wasting my time, they would compensate me with a travel voucher of $400, plus free accommodation for the night. Naah, the offer did not seem lucrative enough to tempt me. Spending the night in a hotel, with the knowledge that my luggage had reached somewhere before I did, and was lying unsupervised, and the hassle of clearing security again, wasn’t good enough to tempt me to volunteer to take the next flight. Why did you overbook your flight dear United Airlines? Don’t you always do it? Last time, you were going around offering almost double the amount, begging people to stop their work and be jobless enough to spend nights in hotels. Why were you so greedy?

No one volunteered. Which responsible person with work commitments would? The boarding started, and I confidently walked toward the aircraft. They scanned my boarding pass, and there, the familiar beep of the scanner was playing out of tune. This is not exactly the chord you sing in, dear scanner. They asked me to step aside, as if I was a convict. It seemed I was a few of the “chosen ones” who would not be allowed to take the flight that day. Since I did not volunteer to miss my flight, the system did a random search to see who had paid less for their tickets, or who had booked their flight long back. I was paying a price for planning my trip early enough, because that is how I paid less for my ticket according to them. This wasn’t good news.

To cut a long story short, they did several things that did not seem right. The women at the counter were curt and rude, and cared least about my work priorities. They did not oblige even when repeatedly asked about what was happening, and why was I picked not to board the flight. Wait, this gets even more interesting. My luggage was already in the plane, and the lady looked at me accusatorily when I asked if I could at least have my luggage, because I did not have any change of clothes with me, and because I was not comfortable with the idea of my bags lying unsupervised for the night. She rudely asked me if she wanted to stop the plane, take out all the suitcases, and find mine, as if I was responsible for my luggage making into the flight, when I was not allowed to. Then she just asked me to sign somewhere, and gave me a gift voucher of $400. Note, when I asked if I could have cash instead, she refused, with her “take it or leave it” tone. Basically, she was giving me a voucher to be redeemed within the next 1 YEAR ONLY on another UNITED AIRLINE FLIGHT ONLY. So if I had pneumonia and could not fly for a year, or if I decided to fly somewhere United Airlines did not fly, for example, directly to Kolkata, my voucher was doomed. I later came home and did some reading, only to understand that the customer has the right to information. Here is what their website says,

If you are involuntarily denied boarding and have complied with our check-in and other applicable rules, we will give you a written statement that describes your rights and explains how we determine boarding priority for an oversold flight. You will generally be entitled to compensation and transportation on an alternate flight.

Another website claims the following:

“The airlines are obligated to offer you either a travel voucher *or* cash compensation (in the form of cash or check) up to a certain value … Most people are unaware that the airlines have to give you that compensation in cash if you so wish. In fact, most gates leave off that little nugget of information in hopes you’ll simple take what they’re offering as a voucher. And most do.”

No wonder they did not bother to explain me my rights, and I would obviously not be reading stuff off the internet the moment they denied to board me.

They offered me a hotel voucher too, a hotel outside the airport. How I got to the hotel, and how much I spent on transportation, was not their headache. Thankfully, I was a few hours driving distance from home, and sometime during my life, I had done myself a favor by learning to drive. Hence I politely declined their hotel voucher, and rented a car out of my pocket. It was more important that I reached home, than stay at a hotel or at the airport for the night. I drove for the next few hours, picked up my luggage abandoned at the airport (unlike their claims that someone would keep an eye on my bags, they were lying unsupervised at the airport), and reached home long past midnight.

United Airlines, you were not flying me in for free, were you? What kind of a service was this, especially after I was denied boarding? I had heard the story of United Airlines breaking guitars (do watch the very enlightening video). If I was creative enough and had the time, I would not just write a song, I would make a movie out of the episode.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Daddy knows best

Last semester, who else but academic daddy asked me to take 2 core courses in statistics together. This was along with many other courses I was taking. I was baffled, scared of failing, and wondered why he would urge me to take 2 heavy courses together, when others in the department took their own sweet time to finish them. I tried to resist, reason, argue, even sweet talk into wriggling out of this predicament, but daddy is not really renowned for being very easy going. I was definitely in for some fun times ahead.

The semester was a nightmare. I struggled for hours every day, trying to finish the assignments, trying to understand the Greek and Hebrew the theory behind both courses were, and tried to understand the logic behind why God selected me, an unsuspecting innocent who has never willingly meant any harm to anyone, to go through this suffering. Thursdays were a nightmare, with 6 hours of classes, and I was amongst very few in the department who took both courses together. More than once, I have feared failing in one or both, and have shuddered at the thought, knowing how daddy would feel about it. I could go on and on describing my pain.

Magically, I passed both courses at the end of the semester. I had cried in anguish after it took me hours of effort to finish the finals for both courses. The day I submitted both exams (yeah, to make it worse, both courses had close deadlines for the finals), I had slumped defeated, too numb to realize I had put two core courses behind me. I had felt so lightweight once I was done, that the feeling itself was surreal. I did well in both courses.

It was time to thank daddy. Throughout the semester, I was convinced that I was going to fail. Right now, while most students are to go through the torture of taking the advanced course, I am done with it. I am on to more difficult advanced courses now, but that is a different story. The reason why daddy pushed me to take both became clear much later. First, I used the knowledge acquired by taking both to get some serious research done this summer, when I did not have the pressure of taking courses. If I did not have both stats courses under my belt, my research achievements this summer would be limited. More importantly, something happened that was beyond the scope of my understanding. This summer, the professor for one of the two advanced level courses left to take up another job elsewhere. I had no way of knowing this would happen (perhaps daddy did), but my peers who were hoping to take the course next semester will have to wait for a while now.

The moral of the story: Listen to your daddy, even if you do not agree with him. For he might be as clueless about your life, abilities, and your difficulties as you are, but given his experience in general, chances are less likely that he will screw up.