Thursday, November 06, 2014

Stuff that memories are made of

            Today, I completed exactly a month of leaving the US. As much as I love my new place, I wondered why I am missing the US so much. When you ask such questions in solitude, the universe gives you answers. I realized that happiness and sorrow do not necessarily exist in series, but can coexist in parallel. Just because you are happy about a new chapter does not mean that you will not be sad about the conclusion of the previous chapter. So I let myself feel the happiness and the sadness at the same time. I did not check my feelings. One needs to feel what they are feeling, and be done with it. You don’t necessarily have to do anything to rectify the situation, but just feel the feelings and be done with it. So I allowed myself to do that.

            To crystallize my thoughts some more, my stuff arrived today, exactly one month into my move here. Two suitcases with all my stuff, and a third suitcase that G had painstakingly packed with food. Spices. Snacks. Things that I loved eating. And when I opened those suitcases, I realized something. That our memories may exist in the mind, but they are created in the body first. I had specifically asked G to send me some specific brands of soaps and lotions, because I have always used them. Sniffing those soaps and lotions brought back so many memories. I unpacked my books, diaries, and notes, and when I touched them, my body exactly knew how it felt touching them. What came back are memories of my old apartment where I used to lie in bed on weekends and read those books. Bowls. Knives. The familiar feel of my sweaters and coats. When I dabbed some perfume, that smell reminded me of driving to work or going out for dinner with friends, wearing that perfume. I opened some old letters to see the familiar writings of friends, which brought back even more memories. Just like when I listen to songs, every song brings back memories of where I heard it, who I heard it with, and what was I doing then.

            Memories might exist in the mind, but it is the bodily feelings that create them. The senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Just like the smell of my hands after peeling garlic reminds me of Sunday lunches of steaming rice and goat curry in Calcutta. Or the smell of coffee, that reminds me of Seattle. The smell of Irish Spring soaps might not mean anything to you, but right now, they are sitting in my closet, filling up my senses with my initial memories of the US. The mind does not forget these memories because the body hasn’t forgotten. Our senses get used to doing familiar things in a repetitive pattern. The familiar taste as I bite into a Chipotle burrito. The familiar sight of the green freeway signs in English. The familiar sounds of listening to the NPR radio every morning, or listening to certain familiar voices when you dial a phone number. The familiar feel of the bed, the car’s steering, or the phone’s touch screen. It is this familiarity that substantially reduces cognitive overload, the energy spent to figure things out, because things are mapped into a pattern in your head. What is going on for me right now is some active, heavy duty deconstruction and reconstruction. Like new tissue replacing old tissue. New muscle memory replacing old muscle memory. New sights and smells and sounds and tastes and sensations are replacing the older ones. I guess there are two kinds of missing something. One, where the loss engulfs you and consumes you, and does not let you move forward. And the other where your sense of loss doesn’t stop you from embracing whatever the future offers, and while you paint your new life, old memories remain as smudged sketches, a happy reminder of the past and a hopeful possibility of the future.

            So as I build newer memories in Europe, I am savoring the remnants of my older memories from the US. They will fade with time, I know they will. Even the memories of people, their voices, and how they look fade with time. New data replaces old data. New technology replaces old technology. What I am caught in right now is kind of a limbo, an in-between, transition zone. But all said and done, I am glad that the suitcases made their way here fine, just like I did.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Clueless in Seattle

I am in Seattle this entire September. It is not even Christmas break or April Fools’ Day. The last time I was here this long was in 2010, right before I was moving to Virginia to start a PhD. This time however, I did not take a flight to Seattle. I drove, all the way from Nebraska. Actually I did not drive directly to Seattle either. I took a rather circuitous route. I first went south, to Houston. Then I went north, to Chicago. Then I drove east, to Washington DC. From there, I drove west, to Seattle. I still think that I am reasonably sane. I just wanted to drive all four directions. Alone, in my car. And I did that. Three weeks and 8,000 miles later, I reached Seattle. I met many friends on my way, 42 to be exact. I made 10 new friends as well. For years, I have seen people do cross-country road trips, creating their trajectories using Google maps, and posting them on Facebook. Someone once did a smiley trip, driving from Boston, dipping down to Texas, and going up to Seattle, drawing a smiley on the US map. Then someone drove four corners, from Maine to Florida, to southern California and Seattle. There is no dearth of crazy people. I think I have finally enrolled my name in that list too. It takes you 8,000 miles to drive from Washington DC to India, via Europe. That is how far I went.

I had a lot of realizations in this road trip. It is only natural, when you are on your own, sitting for hours inside a car, doing nothing but driving. The music keeps you distracted initially, and so do the landscapes. But there is only so much music you can hear and so much scenery you can see. When you have had your fill, you go back to thinking. About life, about people, about the sky and the ground, and everything in between. About the past and the future, and everything in between as well. So I thought about a lot of things. And realized that I have nothing much to show in life. Certainly not if I held out my social checklist and pen, trying to check boxes.

Of all the 42 odd friends I met, I found a pattern. The people who were graduate students, doing their PhD four years ago now definitely have a well-paying job and a wife, a car, if not a home. And the people who had a job and a wife and an apartment then now have a house, a few kids and a pregnant wife, a BMW or an SUV, and a permanent residence in the US. The F1s have moved to H1Bs, the H1Bs have changed to green cards. The sedans have become SUVs. The rented apartments have become self-owned houses. The singles are all parents now, single or not. People have progressed, and have much to show from this checklist of achievements. They have run marathons, taken the ice bucket challenge, climbed Mount Rainier, created their own photography website, and have at least visited Alaska, if not South America. And all I have to show is a PhD. An effing PhD on a topic no one cares about; not enough to help me get a faculty position anyway.

I know that I had never signed up for a traditional life by any standard. Predictability bored me. When people went one way, I wanted to go another way. In the mid-twenties, when my friends were preparing to get married, I was preparing to move to the US. Later when more friends were getting married, I was busy changing jobs, running analyses for my PhD, or traveling. When people were raising babies, I was taking salsa classes, performing in plays, and dancing on stage. And now that those friends are about to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, I am pretty much still where I started from. And this makes me realize that I have nothing much to show in life, except for hundreds of travel magnets and hundreds of friends I have collected over the years.

Do I regret it? No. Is it freaking me out? Maybe a little bit. Given a choice, would I live their lives? I don’t think so. For better or for worse, my journey has been my own, and I own it. But once in a while, I pause and wonder, is this what I wanted? Of course the constant Facebook updates of people living wonderful lives and eating gourmet food has a lot to do with this. At 33, I didn’t think that I would have no job stability, no stable source of income, no savings, no one to call a spouse or a partner or a sugar daddy, and would be so lost and clueless about where I am headed. I didn’t know that I would be living my life in one year contracts, changing jobs and going to new places every year. Who would I be, given a choice? Well, I would be a professor in Seattle, working at UW or Seattle U. Or I would be working for the UN, the WHO, or the World Bank. I would like to live in a little condo overlooking the bay, and Mount Rainier, sharing my life and living space with Mr. Pi (a mathematician and a fictional character in my head). Mr. Pi is also a professor in rocket sciences, a field that not many of us understand. I write academic papers in the day and fictional stories at night. We go hiking, biking, and sometimes indulge in late night desserts at Dilettante, or take a stroll by the Alki beach, marveling at the Seattle skyline.

But I don’t see myself anywhere close to these fictional dreams. Instead, there has been a little bit of a situation. You see, my life has been caught up in an intricate web of uncertainties. I thought that as people grow older, they become more stable, accomplished, and sure of themselves. But now I know that sometimes, people get lost, unable to find their way out. They see their friends zoom by them, and wonder what they could have done differently in life. So now, I suddenly find myself a little lost, with my close friends telling me, "I told you so." Not too long ago, when I was finishing my PhD, I thought that I would next be a professor at an American university. But none of that happened. I moved to Nebraska, spending the worst one year of my life in America. Three days ago, I sold my car, something that I was very deeply attached to. Tomorrow, I will complete my eight years of stay in the US. And in less than one month, I will start the next chapter of my life, in a new country, in fact, a new continent. 

I am moving to Europe.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Facebook Retro

If Facebook existed during my grandparents' or even parents’ time, this is what their walls would read like:  

1. Chitrahaar about to start in 10 minutes. Thank God it’s Wednesday! Where is my Rasna?

5 people liked it.
Comment: Did you check out Jitendra’s white shirt and white trousers and white shoes. Those 30-plus pills are working wonders.

2. So happy to get mommy's telegram today. Want to send her an inland letter soon.

33 people liked it.
Comment: Say pranaam to mataji.

3. Upgraded from a B&W television to a color television. Now the neighbors can come and watch the World Cup ’86 with us. So excited!

86 people liked it.
Comment: Maradona kicked ass and balls today.

4. We have a new member in the family now. A shiny new blue Bajaj scooter. Humara Bajaj!

10 people liked it.
Comment: Badhai ho!

5. Went to do grocery but forgot the bazaar ki thaili. Since plastic bags have not been invented yet, I came home empty handed.

2 people liked it.
No comments yet.

6. Off to watch the latest Amitabh-Rekha movie in our Humara Bajaj at the Gopi cinema hall. Multiplexes? What are those?

19 people liked it.
Comment: How were the tulip fields?

7. Nuclear family. Learnt a new concept today.

8 people liked it.
Comment: I learnt a new word too. Privacy.

8. Off to Puri for our honeymoon. Yipeee! Will visit the Jagannath temple too. (The average middle-class Bengali's travel destination those days mostly used to be Digha, Puri, or Darjeeling).

21 people liked it.
Comment: Have fun. Wink wink.

9. Went to pay a surprise visit to my friend but her door was locked from outside. So sad. I wish we had telephones.

14 people liked it.
No comments.

10. The day started with watching Rangoli, followed by breakfast of luchi torkari, and an hour long session of Ramayana. I love Sundays!

21 people liked it.
Comment: Hanuman kicked ass today!

11. Load shedding !! %#^%&^% Spent two hours in the darkness, listening to Akashvani.

2 people liked it.
Comment: Those bleddy mosquitoes sucked the blood out of me too!

12. Chitramaala airing. Friday night fun!

6 people liked it.
Comment: Can I come and watch? Our TV is not working. Low voltage here.

13. The milkman is diluting so much water in the milk these days. Have to talk to him tomorrow.

21 people liked it.
Comment: Ever heard of Mother Diary?
What? No!
Me neither.

14. That insufferable Mala-D advertisement is so embarrassing. It is so uncomfortable to sit and watch the evening news with the in-laws these days.

33 people liked it.
Comment: My three-year old has started singing the song!

15. Raju ke baapu, I miss you. Come back from Madras soon.

86 people liked it.
Comment: Awwwwww!!

And so on .....


Sunday, June 15, 2014

The dilemma of choice

A write up based on personal reflections.

In the year 1994, my father was transferred from a small town to a somewhat larger city a few hours away. Work being work, we had all decided to move with him. I was starting eighth grade, and my small school from the small town did not offer computer science as a subject then. But the bigger school that I was joining taught computer science as a compulsory subject from the sixth grade. Needless to say, my parents were worried.

When I joined the eighth grade, I started with collecting all the class notes, homework, and assignments worth two years. That was the first time I had ever typed on a computer. With the number of subjects we study in school, and the amount of things we learn, catching up on two years’ worth of learning was going to be a lot for me. I was neither terribly excited, nor discouraged. I just knew that I had to catch up. There was no other way out.

I put in a lot of hard work. Other than learning everything taught about Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) in school, the computer guy working in my father’s office recommended that I should join coaching classes. So I spent a hot summer going for computer classes in Link Road at 10 am four days a week during my 1.5 month long summer vacation. I got more exposure to the subject, more practice with working on a computer, and learnt about floppy discs and flow charts and binary code conversions. My performance in the first school exam was bad. I did not fail, but scored in the low sixties. By my next exam, I had moved up to the late eighties. Everyone was happy and relieved. At home, everyone saw it as a difficult situation that was overcome using hard work and interventions, a disaster prevented in due time. No one really saw it as a gateway to a wonderful career of possibilities.

I had enjoyed learning everything about computer science that year. When I moved to the ninth grade, we had to make a choice of taking computer science, economics, or home science. My father never interfered in what I should study, or how much I should study. My mother didn’t do it either. But in this particular case, she decided that I should study home science. She said that she would be able to help me with the subject, and since the ICSE (10th boards) would be my first important exam, I should do everything to get maximum marks, no matter what I decide to study. My ICSE performance would determine whether or not I was able to get into a good college and study science.

Had this happened now, I would have politely told her, no thank you, please let me decide things for myself. But 20 years back, I did not have much perspective in life. I am not sure what I was thinking back then, and I was not even a lazy student who wanted to score good marks using short cuts. I now realize that my mother’s motivation to push me to study home science was well-meant, but solely based on the fear that what if I don’t do well studying computer science, since I have missed out on two years’ worth of knowledge. My improving grades in school did not convince her enough. I was not too sure about what I wanted, and somewhere down the line, her fear might have rubbed off on me. For much to everyone’s surprise, I opted for home science.

Although we talk about all subjects being equally important, we usually have a pre-conceived notion of their hierarchical importance. In India, science is valued more than the humanities, and an engineering degree is valued more than a pure science degree. Let’s face it. No society is free of biases or stereotypes. These biases are mostly governed by our future usefulness to the society when we seek jobs, or even making ourselves more marketable in the marriage industry. I have a lot of female friends who got a master degree because that would upgrade their status from getting an engineer husband to getting an IIT-graduate working in the US. We don’t live in an ideal world. So back in school, we had a trend too. The hierarchical choices of subjects based on the brightness of the students were computer science, economics, and home science respectively. And much to everyone’s surprise, I chose home science. My mother must have considered offering coconuts to the local deity that day.

Honestly, I did not know what I wanted to study. I liked studying everything. I was doing well in school. But my mother’s fear somehow became more real than my own confidence in acing a subject. At age 14, I was being asked to make a decision which I was told would affect my career for the rest of my life. And I did not want to make mistakes. So the decision was clear.

Did I enjoy studying home science? I sure did. I learnt about cleaning, stain removal, first aid, and safety measures. For my practical classes, I was expected to polish metal, arrange flowers, and bake. My mother mostly helped me in those projects. I have enough reasons to believe now that she influenced me so that she could do half my assignments on my behalf, for her enjoyment. Force and motion and atoms and molecules, she did not understand so much.

My teachers were surprised about my decision. And so were my friends. I used to hang out with the “computer science” gang of students, and when the bell rang for class, they would often forget and wonder why I was not coming with them to the computer lab. I never had any associations about studying a “less challenging” subject. I was scoring in the nineties, getting help from my mother, and was enjoying hanging out with a new set of friends. I even passed the ICSE with flying colors, scoring in the higher nineties, and easily got admitted to the science stream after the tenth grade. For ISC (11th and 12th grades), my new school in Calcutta (we had moved once again) only had a choice between biology or computer science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics being compulsory for all science students. It became even easier to make my choice. Students who wanted to be doctors opted for biology, and the future engineers chose computer science. I didn’t know what I wanted to become, but biology was my default choice.

Twenty years ago, my mother had influenced my decision with the best of her intentions that I score maximum marks in the exams. So the short-term interests were served. But did it serve me long time? I am afraid not. For most of the things I learnt in those two years studying home science, I do not apply in my life anymore. I don’t arrange flowers, I use a washing machine to remove stains, and I learnt all my cooking after moving to the US. There is nothing I need for my home that I cannot Google and find out. I know my acids from my bases for home remedies, and what I don’t know, the internet knows. So I need nothing that I learnt then.

However, this decision permanently steered me away from a whole new world of possibilities, and closed the door to studying computer science. I could have grown up to become a computer scientist. I could have been working at the Mountain View office of Google. I could be writing codes and inventing languages for a living. I could be a computer science professor by now. I could be doing many things right now that I am not solely because I was never exposed to this field. In the purpose of serving the short-term interests of better grades, my long-term interests were screwed. Now that did not prevent me from moving to the US, getting a PhD or working as a researcher. But something that could be did not become, because I did not know any better. And it is a universally recognized fact that a degree in computer science increases your probability of getting a better paid job, having many more opportunities of employment, rubbing shoulders with some really smart people, and never having to worry about visa issues. I am not saying that I cannot learn whatever programming I need to learn now to get my job done. But it is too late for me to know how my life would be different if I had studied computer science as a subject in school.

I often tend to reflect on my life experiences to understand what could be done better. And from this incident, I have learnt that closing our heart and mind to learning something just because it may not serve our short term interests is wrong. You don’t take that structural equation modeling (SEM) class in graduate school because it is tough, and is not a requirement to graduate. However, will taking that course make you more marketable when you look for a job in future? Will it give you skills that your peers will not have? Will it open the doors to exploring newer research possibilities? The aim of learning something cannot be either good grades or graduating on time. But that perspective, that wisdom, I have gained at this age.

If life ever had an undo button, I know that right now, we would be back to 1995, sitting in the living room. I would tell my parents that I am graduating to the ninth grade soon, and will need to choose between taking computer science, economics, or home science. My father would look up from reading the newspaper and tell me that I should do what I think is the best. My mother would tell me that I should study home science so that she can help me with it. And I would smile, letting her know that I have decided to study computer science, and ask her not to be afraid about me failing.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Facebook Wall(Street) Journal

My daily dose of entertainment these days comes from the FB post I read on my feed one by one, without seeing who wrote them. It gives me a chance to snicker, while I wonder if loss of IQ has a correlation with the amount of time people spend on FB. This is of course after I have “unfollowed” many people in the last few months, because I do not have the mental bandwidth to go through all the garbage they spew. From romantic trips in Hawaii to theme weddings and babies sprouting teeth chewing on organic strawberries, I have seen it all. It is not so much the news that is distasteful to me as it is the self-aggrandizing way in which it is portrayed, that seems distasteful. On an average day, when I read my feed, it looks something like this (note that it is not what one person writes on their wall, but how different people writing different things appear on my wall):

Narendra Modi blah blah blah.

Having an awesome time in Uganda. Going to Botswana tomorrow.
[And why would I want to know that?]

Narendra Modi blah blah blah. Sonia Gandhi blah blah blah.

Production of India's Ambassador car suspended.

My darling son [insert name of baby] just ate an entire banana. Yipee!

Emma Watson graduates from Brown University.

Made goat curry and steamed pulao for lunch. Who wants to come?
[Note: She is actually not inviting anyone. Just being mean and showing off about how she is eating nice food on Sunday].

Missing you darling. Come back soon.
[I have no idea who they are missing and why they are not contacting them directly, unless they are aliens].

Share this with 30 people in the next 5 minutes and Sai Baba will fulfill all your wishes. If you fail to do that, you will face misery for the next year.
[This makes me strongly suspect that my present day miseries might be attributed to one of these people].

20 reasons why [tall people/thin people/MBAs/Republicans/Arranged marriages/Bengali food/Single women travelers/People with B positive blood group] are great.

OMG! GMOs are killing people! Global warming is real! OMG! GMO! 

125 reasons why non-vegetarians are sinners and should become vegetarians.

Every time you share this, Bill Gates will donate 5 cents to the poor and needy.

I love Chweetu! He is the cutest.

A list of 25 quotes by [Albert Einstein/Paulo Coelho/Aristotle/Bill Gates] that they never said.

I hate my life. Some people are such losers. Sigh! (Comments: What happened dear? What happened? What?)

OMG! Look, we are in the park. Look, we are smelling the roses. Look, we are walking on the grass. Look, we are eating an ice cream. OMG! Life is so good.

RaGa sucks! Om Na Mo Na Mo.

And the circus continues.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Of research, and resolutions, and other miscellany

This is a write up about this and that, specifically the “this and that” that has happened over the last two weeks. I continue to get many emails from many of you (thank you for that!), but it seems like some of you wrongly thought that I am depressed and in need of help. Trust me, it is nothing like that, and I am not in denial. Usually an upbeat and positive person, I am doing great.

I usually have this argument with a close friend of mine. The friend’s point is, people are better off not knowing when they will die, because that will spoil the rest of their life. And I wholeheartedly disagree. I think that I would be able to plan my life much better if I knew my expiry date. That everyone will be dying someday is a universal truth; there is no doubt about it. Now given the current state of things, I would prioritize my life differently if I knew when I am dying. If I had 1 more week, I’d straightway drop everything and go visit Peru, because that has been high up on my list. If I had a month, I’d do Peru, Scandinavia, and visit India just in time. If I had a year, I’d spend it traveling most of the time. But if I had 30 more years, I’ll continue with my job search, publish more papers, etc. Now since I don’t know when I am dying, I have no clue how to prioritize things.

Not convinced? Most food we buy, milk cartons, cheese, eggs, juice, etc. come with an expiry date. Don’t know about you, but it helps me plan my grocery, money, and space in the fridge better. I feel cheated that I just know that I will be dying someday, but I was not told when.

So why am I talking about dying? Because these days, I am prepping for a different kind of goodbye. Goodbye from the current research group. I figured that I have 16 more weeks now. Time is finite for all of us. And now that I know when I am departing, I am able to plan my 4 months of remainder work so much better. At some point, I realized that instead of working the usual 40 hours/week, if I can ramp it up to 60 hours /week, my productivity will increase by 1.5 times. Which means that I will be able to publish more papers before I leave. Which will help my CV look better, and will help me find a job in the long run. But given how many of us complain that time is a constrained commodity, how do you find those extra hours? I came up with a very simple strategy.

No opening laptop at home during the weekdays.

It is as simple as that. This plan works like wonders for many reasons. Earlier, I used to come home, open my laptop, and spend hours looking at people’s awesome lives on Facebook (and feeling worse about myself). And being a big movie addict, I’d start a movie while eating dinner, watch it until late hours, go to sleep at 3 am, wake up at 9 am, and lose time and productivity. Now since I have no laptop on weekdays, I strangely find that I have not much to do at home. Hence I go to sleep by 10 pm. I am not kidding you. I don’t remember the last time I did that, but this plan works wonders. When I sleep by 10 pm, I wake up by 6 am, without an alarm clock. I not only wake up early, I wake up with my batteries fully recharged. So I have more energy to work now. I get to work by 8 am and spend the next 12-13 hours working. Now since I know that I will be at work for long, I don’t hesitate to take a break, go on a walk around the campus, and take some time off. Earlier, I would be constantly looking at the clock, trying to finish as soon as possible. Also, since I do not Facebook from work, my Facebook time is mostly restricted to when I browse on my phone. And how much time can one spend on phone browsing Facebook? The other thing is, alone at home, I keep thinking about all the things that will go wrong for me next. Mostly unhappy, negative thoughts. So the longer I am at work, the less time I have to think negative thoughts at home. Overall, this “no laptop from home on the weekday” is a win-win situation (which also explains why most of my blog posts and the replies to your emails happen on the weekends). In fact, once you get into this habit and rediscover the value of 8 hours of sleep, you do not even miss your laptop much. Notice that restricting the time you spend online is way effective than cutting it out totally.

I have had an awesome time practicing this the last two weeks.

This strategy helps me in another way. I think that research work (or any work for that matter) consists of two kinds of skills, lower-order and higher-order. The lower-order things are those that do not require much thinking, and is done mostly with practice. The neurons in your brain follow a fixed trajectory. For example, interviewing a research subject, transcribing a research interview, supervising the undergraduate student, looking up mail addresses, posting gift cards, etc. These activities are needed for research, but do not need specialized skills. And then there is higher-order work. Like designing a study. Writing a paper. Running a statistical model. These challenge your brain to think.

Now ever since the boss gave me the marching orders, they have also been dumping lower-order menial jobs on me. And I can see why. They know that I am leaving, so no point in spending their time training me. The boss doesn’t want to give me any higher-order activity that might not be finished during the last few months of my stay here (understandably because after I leave, they will have to depend on me to finish it). So the boss has started dumping lower-order work on me. I was recently asked to transcribe 35 hour long interviews, and I have no idea why I am doing the work of an undergraduate. It’s brain dead, mind numbing, menial work. It is not research, it is the preparatory work that leads to research. Now in an 8 hour work day, I am spending 8 hours doing menial jobs. But if I increase that to a 12 hour work day, I now have 4 extra hours to do higher-order work. It makes a hell lot of difference, being able to do those few hours of challenging work everyday.

So anyhow, this post is more about me babbling, because I am on my laptop after five days of hiatus. Now you might be wondering, if a 12 hour day makes people more productive, why don’t people do it more often? The answer is simple. Working such long hours is not sustainable. You can do it in spurts. Now that I know I am leaving, I have real motivation to get as much done as I can. Because I have an incentive of publishing more papers. If I knew I would be with this group for years, I would not feel the push. It is the same analogy of why most of the studying happening during the last week of the final examination. Students don’t study seriously everyday. For better or for worse, 90% of the studying happens in the last 10% of the remaining time.

So I have taken a hiatus from everything else for now- laptopping, photography, travel, socializing. Someone told me that I should socialize and seek a support network, and I respectfully disagree. Now is the only time to get some work done, for initiating some real research-related action. Socializing can happen during old age.

Anyhow, I got two job rejects this week. And next, I am tempted to write about my interview for another two jobs, and how interesting they went. Sarcastically speaking, of course.


Sunday, May 04, 2014

My Graduation Ceremony: Why I wanted to go, and why I will not go.

May 17, 2014. That is the day when all the graduates from my institution will be attending their graduation ceremony. When I was a student there, every year, I would attend the ceremony, camera in hand, because another friend would be graduating. I would take their graduation pictures, cap and gown and regalia. On a hot May weekend, I would stand in the sun, watching the graduates parade the ground, listening to the guest speaker give their lecture, and feeling inspired for being a part of a top US institution (my university is actually an original Public Ivy League school). To me, it is a matter of pride, a sense of belonging, a way of life I have chosen for myself. I could be a school teacher or a sales manager or a PR person, but I voluntarily chose to be a researcher at an academic institution.

I always dreamed about what it would be like, attending my own graduation ceremony. I know people who never bothered to attend theirs, and I wondered why. I have even flown to a different city to attend someone else’s graduation ceremony, whose family was not going to be there, because I did not want them to feel alone. Yes, I have done things like that. Because to me, it is nothing short of a huge achievement. An achievement which is not celebrated enough.

If I had decided to marry in my twenties, or even decide to do it now, there would be a huge week-long celebration. Hundreds of relatives will breathe a sigh of relief that I have finally come back to my senses and a getting married, congregate from different parts of the country, eat and drink for days, and bless me. There would be good food and good music. Much to my dislike, I know that my father has a separate budget in his savings kept for the occasion. He is not going to give me the money (which is a substantial part of his savings). Instead, he will use that money to buy me expensive clothes and jewelry, invite a few hundred people and feed them, hire photographers and catering services, buy flowers and decorations worth many a thousand rupees, and marry me off. And what have I done to deserve this celebration? Just found myself a husband, nothing more than that. I did not clear entrance exams, did not ace competitive exams, did absolutely nothing. But I would still be worth the week-long, expensive celebration.

Now think about this. Almost nine years ago, I worked day and night to ace my GRE. I got into a top ranking university in Seattle. I worked harder, attended classes, learned my subjects, aced my exams, and the drill continued for two years, until I graduated with a master degree. Then I worked in the industry for a bit. And decided to go back to school again, and finish my PhD. This time, I moved to the other coast, joined a top university again, worked hard day and night, did everything one needs to do, and finished my PhD in a little less than three years. Now given the amount of celebration for a wedding, and the amount of celebration getting a PhD makes me worth, what do you think happens? Does my father buy me diamond jewelry, invite a few thousand guests, and throw a party? No. Actually, they would not even make it to my graduation event, because India is far away. So on a bright and sunny May morning, I would don my cap and gown, and receive my degree with absolutely no one to cheer for me. No one. Sure, a few friends might show up, and take me to a local restaurant. My adviser might tell me a few words of encouragement. But nothing more than that is going to happen.

This is what makes me so sad. That in my family, getting married is valued more than getting an education, being independent, mastering a subject, being a student of two world renowned universities, getting a PhD, and creating my own identity.

So I thought to myself, forget parents. Forget the celebrations. Forget the makeup person and photographer. I will celebrate my own success, alone, like I have done so many things in life. When my sister got married a few years ago, I was appalled at the amount of money that was spent on junk- flowers and unwanted guests and lighting and clothes and what not. My sister, who works and is financially independent, let my dad blow off a lot of money for the celebrations. Because she thought she deserved it, and it was my dad’s duty to do it. And my dad was happy doing that, marrying my sister off. And during the same occasion, I was harassed and bullied by God knows how many people, who did not understand why I am not showing any interest in getting married, and doing a PhD instead (note: I don’t see a PhD and a wedding as mutually exclusive events). I tried to let go of the hurt, and think rationally about why people had that mindset. Maybe because it is an age old tradition to celebrate marriages, while women during those days did not do PhDs, so getting an education was not valued. I don’t know.

Even now, look at the amount of celebrations that go for weddings and baby showers and thread ceremonies and engagements and birthdays of the little ones. And look at the amount of celebration that goes for getting an education, getting a degree, and being smart. The comparison is stark.

So even one year back, I was decided that I would go for my graduation (note: If you graduate after May, your graduation ceremony happens the following May). But a few months ago, I changed my mind.

Because I graduated, and I moved 1,200 miles away. That is roughly the distance between Kolkata and Mumbai, without direct flights. I would have to change flights at least once, if not twice. And it would cost me $500. Also, for a weekend ceremony, I would have to fly out on a Friday, and return on a Monday, which is taking out two vacation days from my 12 days/year vacation time. The time and money, I could not justify, not to mention the exorbitant amount of the graduation gown. You know, I have heard many people say that the honeymoon should be right after the wedding. If you wait too long, you would never end up going. And I saw the same thing happening. This year long gap had put my focus in different directions now. I was over my initial high of getting a PhD, and was sufficiently busy in my new job. But all these reasons aside, there is one big and only reason that finally convinced me that I will not go attend the ceremony. The money and time are resources that can be replenished. So I would have gone eventually. But something happened, that totally changed the way I perceived my graduation ceremony.

I decided not to go for my graduation, because I am convinced that my PhD has not adequately prepared me to find gainful employment. Eight months into finishing my PhD, I am desperately looking for my next job, and keep getting rejected all the time. The visa is a pain, an apt description of what it is. My adviser might have written me reference letters, but he has done nothing to connect me to the right people, or to reabsorb me in his group. I have had occasional supports from here and there, but overall, I have been on my own through this mess. Parents didn’t understand, adviser didn’t care, and another professor made fun of it and asked me to find an American boyfriend.

Which created a disconnect with the excitement I had of celebrating my very own and only achievement of this magnitude. It was my very analysis of the situation that perhaps my PhD has not prepared me well enough to find a respectable job in the field. Forget a faculty position, I am unable to find even a postdoctoral position. I mean, how hard can it be? It’s not that I am not looking hard enough. It’s not that I am not smart or do not know how to get the work done. Some things in life do not make any sense, and this is one of them. I finished my degree in record time, am actively publishing and presenting at national conferences. Still I am unable to find anything. It is a puzzle to me. Somehow, the pieces do not add up.

So May 17, I will be home. It was a hard decision, but a practical one. I think that I am better off saving money for the rainy day. Too bad, I cannot walk the ceremony next year. If I had a job by now, I would go back to attend the ceremony in a heartbeat. But right now, it doesn’t seem right.

It is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. But I am at peace with my decision, because it seems like the right thing to do given the circumstances. The path I have chosen for me is not appreciated by a lot of people around me, and I will have to be okay with that. Perhaps in another life, I will get a PhD, and then my dad will invite hundreds of people and there will be weeklong celebrations, dance and music, good food and a lot of photographs. Not in this life. And in this life, when the situation is better, when I have some more money and lesser worries, I will celebrate by going backpacking somewhere nice. Maybe Alaska. Maybe Europe. Perhaps South America. I know that I will celebrate someway. Just that I will not walk my graduation ceremony.


Saturday, May 03, 2014

A Personal Touch

Over the last few weeks, several people have sent me emails, asking me how am I doing, sending me links to jobs that might be a potential fit, listing institutions I could look into, or simply wishing me luck. And I have read all these emails and messages multiple times, smiling, and basking in the feeling of wonder. Many of you wrote that you have been reading me for years now, and never commented, until now. Some of you appreciated that in this age of twitter and Facebook, I still wrote long blogs. It was like suddenly discovering a mini treasure chest of friends who I did not know existed.

Thank you for every note and every comment you wrote for me. I am not very good at replying right away, but that is not an excuse. What amazes me is, even after sharing so little personal information, you have been interested to continue reading. I don’t think I would be very keen on reading someone whose name I did not know, but I might be wrong. I consciously try not to mention identifiers, names of people and universities and where I live and where I work and what color car I drive. Because when I started blogging back in 2005 (almost 9 years and going strong), I wanted to be this totally anonymous person on the web people did not know about. That way, I could write more freely without hesitation. I see many people on Facebook promoting their blogs (which is fine I guess if you do not want to be anonymous), and then going a step ahead and soliciting certain people from their friend’s list to read and comment. It makes me cringe, though it should not. To me, it is a self-selecting group of readers. Nothing wrong in that. It just makes me feel weird that people personally known to me are reading everything I write. It would be fine if I wrote movie reviews and restaurant reviews and fictional stories. Not otherwise.

However, those emails I received were lovely. And I want to genuinely know who you all are. Not because I am going through a crisis and looking for a job and could do with some much needed support. I just want to know who you all are. To me, it feels like I have been performing on stage all this while, the spotlights on me, while my readers sit in darkness watching the show.

Please send me an email at sunshinenjoy[at]gmail[dot]com if you’d like to say hi. I look forward to hearing from you.


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Nothing to lose

There are times in life when you take in a lot of garbage. And then comes a day when nothing really happens, but a small something tips you over. You realize that you have had it, and you are done taking in all the garbage. I think I reached that point recently.

It happened the same day I wrote my earlier post. I was walking back to my office, and the wind was strong. It was raining as well, and thankfully, I had my umbrella with me. I have very fond memories of this umbrella because I bought it on a rainy day during my trip to Europe. So it is a souvenir. Anyway. The wind was strong (Nebraska is infamous for that), and my umbrella kept turning the wrong way. There was no point in carrying it if I was getting wet anyway. So I tried to close it.

At that point, my finger got stuck in the umbrella, tearing a little bit of flesh and drawing a few drops of blood. I find the sight of blood very repulsive, and as I looked at my finger in horror, something in me flipped. Tears started rolling down my cheeks, mingling with the rain, as a bunch of school kids on an educational excursion walked by me. These were not tears of sadness or fear, these were tears of anger pent up for a while. The umbrella incident was totally random, but it invoked a strong sense of anger in me, because it was symbolic of the helpless situation I was in. And I realized, I don’t want to be helpless anymore. I don’t want to feel like a victim, because I have not done anything that should make me feel like a victim. I am done being in this toxic situation that I am in.

And suddenly, in my head, I heard my own voice. Screw you job! Screw you visa! Screw you insecurity. I don’t have to take this. I don’t have to live in a country where I am perennially afraid of the insecurities. I don’t want a colleague suggesting me ever again, even jokingly, that I should have tried hooking up with a citizen, like many people wanting to stay here do. I am done. I am so done with this life. It is no better than being made to feel like an outcast, being asked to sit separately, like the British did to the Indians pre-independence, or higher caste people did to lower caste people.

The epiphany of “screw you” perhaps came from self-worth, and gave me more strength than anything had given me in the last few months. I have a PhD (I am told that less than 1% people have a PhD, but in America or around the world, I do not know). I am in good health. I can speak in English. I can learn. I can relocate anywhere in the world. I can do math. I can think. I have the energy. I have the courage and determination to do what it takes. I can take risks. Most importantly, I am alive. Why am I forgetting all my blessings? Why am I constantly trying to fit in? When I moved to the US eight years ago, I had nothing. And I had nothing to lose. But now, what do I lose if I don’t find a job? Absolutely nothing. I just go somewhere else, and take my skills and ideas with me. I haven’t spent a single day for the last few years when I have not worried about a visa. No self-respecting academic should ever fear that. Because wherever I go next, I take my brains, and my ideas with me. I realized that a high school dropout is perhaps more fearless than I am, armed with fancy degrees and all.

This realization gave me a lot of strength. Often under duress, we tend to think that we are helpless. We are not. This will be my chance to reinvent myself, create my future, and start a new chapter in life. I am looking for a job, but I already have enough work to sustain me for a while. Then what am I so scared of?

When I get a job, this post will be shelved as one of those inspiring notes written during crisis. If I do not, these will become words that will dissipate into nothingness. In either case, I will have nothing to lose. And that thought that I have nothing to lose is empowering in itself.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Ides of March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Art of Giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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