Friday, January 29, 2016

Summarizing January

The last working day in January is over. It seems like just yesterday when people were posting new year resolutions on Facebook that they are not likely to honor. And now, just like that, January is over.

I spent half of January in Seattle, a city I consider my home (although I no longer live there). One day, I was taking a walk when I had this crazy idea of grabbing a fistful of Seattle soil and bringing it back with me to Germany. I did not. Seattle is the only place that has this kind of effect on me.

This year, I resolved to write more. So far, I have honored it. I have buried myself in work these days. I once watched a movie called The Human Stain. It has a powerful line that stayed with me. “Action is the enemy of thought.” I go crazy when I think about life, living mine by yearlong contracts, trying to desperately find a faculty position and not knowing when this postdoc spell would end. My friends who started graduate school with me, both in 2006 an 2010, mostly have faculty positions by now. And I am floundering, from one Skype interview to the next, unable to understand why I am not making it.

So I decided to drown myself in work. I unfollowed a bunch of people on FB to steer clear of their uninspiring lives, generally cut down on the time that I waste on FB, and started working more. This month, I submitted two papers as first author. I just finished working on another paper as secondary author. Wrote a little grant. Got another paper published this morning. Started a new project in Asia. Won a scholarship, a little pot of money that will partially fund my trip to Baltimore this spring. I even moved offices.

Eager to welcome February now, more as a workaholic and a recluse. We often assume this divide between work and play. I think that when you enjoy what you do for a living, work becomes play. It doesn’t seem like a chore anymore. Whenever I work on interesting papers, I stop needing the alarm clock to wake up, and I am usually at work by 8 am. It is only when I do something that does not interest me that life starts to drag on. Like I said, work becomes play when you enjoy work. And play becomes work as well. I will start my country hopping in Europe starting February. Traveling is relaxing and all, but it is hardly play for me. I do a thorough research about where to go, what to see, where and what to eat, and so on. Like I said, the divide between work and play is not so pronounced for me. My work is my play, and my play involves a lot of work.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Food-Medicine Theory

I think for a living. Which means that I continue to think sometimes even when I am not making a living. In this complex web of thought processes, I came up with a gem of a theory one day that answered many unexplained questions I have had in the past about relationships. Not just intimate relationships or romantic relationships, but relationships. Friends, neighbors, colleagues, basically any human interaction I have had. I call this the “food-medicine theory”.

Relationships are based on need. The need to get, and sometimes, the need to give. Most relationships are either like food, or like medicine. Let’s see how.  

Some people are like food in your life. You need food everyday for sustenance. That’s a universal truth. Nutritive, life-giving food, hopefully in moderation. But routine is the key. Sure, you could fast for a day or two. But barring that, you need food. Every day.

Now once in a while, you eat bad food, and have food poisoning. You stay away from that food. What comes in handy is a medicine. Something strong, that has a more localized effect to cure you off the ill effects of food. You may continue to take it for a while. But eventually, when you are cured, you stop taking it, and go back to eating normally. 

Human relationships are just like that. Some people are food. They are just a part of your being. You do not question their need or their existence. You just need them to stay strong, healthy, and functioning. You can perform the most mundane of things as long as you have them around. And they are here, to stay in your life.

But then, other human relationships are like medicines. They have a role, and a very important and specific one to play. They come in handy only when there is a crisis. A medicine is not something you open your eyes and look forward to having on a normal day. It is effective for sure. But it is temporary. Evanescent.

Both food and medicine are important. Neither one nor the other is superior, and there is no judgment on the value one brings to the table. One can be food to some, and medicine to others. That is totally okay.

However, confusion and heartbreaks happen when you mistake one for the other. I have been medicine to many, and many have been medicine to me. Yet mistaking myself as food has caused heartbreaks so many times. In any given relationship, it is so important to know whether one is the food or the medicine, and own up to that. Whether one is serving a temporary need, or is here to stay. That helps you to step away at the right time. You do not want to be hanging around when you are no longer needed.

I know that you need me, and I am happy to be around. But you did not always need me. You started needing me to get over a bad past. A trauma. An accident. An illness. I know that the day you heal and recover, you will not need me anymore. I might still be around, like a vial tucked away in some corner of the medicine cabinet for future use. But I will not be needed all the time.

The day I realized this, so many inexplicable things started making sense to me. Why did someone get so close so soon? And why someone took off and never reported? Why was everyone being treated differently at work? I have seen people completely fall out of love, and the same has happened to me (I am not talking of just romantic love). Perhaps they were, or I was the medicine. I had an important, but only temporary role to play. Once things went back to being normal, the medicine was no longer needed.

Of course every theory has its flaws, no theory is perfect. Sure, you can refute it and find many loopholes in what I just said. But if you can look beyond the flaws, you might see some value in what I just said. I hope that you have read one of these famous quotes in statistics, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” My theory might be wrong. But I hope that it is useful.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Knocked Up

I was browsing through movies during a recent Zurich-Newark flight when a particular scene from a particular Bollywood movie caught my attention.

A woman is in the peak of her pregnancy, about to deliver any moment. No doctor could be there on time since one needs to cross a narrow bridge made of wooden planks and ropes to be able to get to the village. So the confident female protagonist in the movie decides to do the child delivery.

"Have you ever delivered a baby before?" someone had the presence of mind to ask.

"Yes," she said confidently. "I have delivered a baby goat before."

That is exactly when I switched movies.

But this ridiculous scene made me think of all the ridiculous ideas Bollywood has fed us about pregnancy. I have never been pregnant, and the only person I had closely seen being pregnant is my mom, when I was little. Naturally, I do not remember much. So back to Bollywood and the bullshit it feeds us about pregnancy.

1.     Ever noticed how when the newly-wed starts to throw up, everyone is worried, except the old matriarch in the family, who has an all-knowing smile? She does not even have a degree in medicine. I used to throw up a lot when I had ulcer. No one had smiled at me knowingly then.

2.     Ever noticed how the background music of Ravi Shankar's sitar (symbolizing love and happiness) changes to the sinister music of drums and trumpets when the woman throwing up is not married?

3.     Ever noticed how a male doctor examines a woman lying unconscious in bed with his stethoscope, checks her pulse, and declares her pregnant? I thought you only declared someone dead that way. Whatever happened to pregnancy kits? How can a stethoscope and a quick pulse check can detect pregnancy?

4.     A woman craving pickles is supposed to be pregnant. I have loved pickles all my life. What does that make me?

5.     Ever noticed the theory where if you hang someone's life size picture on the wall (usually that of the husband), and make a pregnant woman look at that picture every day, the baby will be born looking like that man?

6.     Does drinking milk infused with saffron really help Indian babies be born fair-skinned? Even long after the British left India, the desire to look like one of them didn't leave many of us. Or is this a pre-British fetish?

7.     And this is my biggest mystery question. When a baby is to be delivered, why does the village matriarch always, always ask for a big vessel of boiling water, before shutting the door on everyone? What is the role of boiling water? I hope you don't throw it on someone to induce labor. Do you make tea with the boiling water for the mother? Coffee maybe? Give her a sponge bath? I can't think of any other creative uses of boiling water.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016


A few months ago, I got hooked to watching air crash investigation videos on YouTube. Almost an hour-long each, these are fascinating videos recreated of airplane crashes, explaining what went wrong. It isn't a morbid fantasy, I am not into the emotional or social or economic aspect of a disaster of this magnitude. I am just fascinated by the science and technology of flying. I want to know how airplanes remain suspended in air, and what all could possibly go wrong. I have watched so many videos that I can theoretically fly planes now. Or write a book about flying planes. Cockpit voice recorder. Flight data recorder. Holding pattern. Pitot tubes. Lift. Stalling. The three components of an autopilot. TCAS. I know it all.

An Ethiopian airplane was hijacked and had to crash-land in the sea. A Helios flight had a sudden lack of oxygen due to which everyone went in a coma and the plane crashed after eventually running out of fuel. The Air France crash of 2008 when there were false pitot tube readings due to cold weather, and the pilots intuitively made nose-up inputs rather than puling the nose down, which led to a sea crash. The flight that crashed in the swamps of Everglades, and how it led to infections and gangrenes. A mid-air collision at right angle between a passenger and a cargo plane because one of the pilots was listening to the air traffic controller, and the other one to the airplane alerts, causing them both to change altitude simultaneously.

As a result, I am petrified of flying now. My heart just wouldn't calm down when I am in air. My fear has reached crazy proportions, because usually seated by the window side, I keep looking outside for signs of disaster. I try to distract myself with food, pointless movies, or a Mills & Boon kept handy with the interesting pages dog-eared. But neither good food, nor reading about sex can keep me distracted for long, and I go back to gluing my nose to the freezing double-pane windows, watching out for imminent signs of disaster.

The other day, they made us deplane after boarding, causing a 3 hour delay. One of the engines was giving funny test readings, and although the other engines were fine, the airline did not want to risk anything. While all the passengers cursed about the inconvenience of getting on and off and then on another plane, children shrieking and pillows flying and all, I was perhaps the only one who did a mental balle-balle, thanking God that the airplane did not take off. I was more than happy to wait for 3 hours to be able to get home safely. People tell me that the chances of dying in a road accident is far more than dying in a plane crash. I don't know what is it that bothers me about flying, that does not have the same effect on me about driving.

I will be flying in a few days, and it is needless to say that I have been hyperventilating and getting sleepless nights. It does not help much that I am also re-reading a great book by Mary Roach called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I realize that as I am ageing, I am turning out to be a pretty weird and eccentric person. In a few decades, I will turn out to be one of those irritable grannies like Maxine.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Connecting More by Connecting Less

Living without a cell phone has been one of the more liberating experiences of my stay in Germany. It’s been close to sixteen months now.

I did not do it on purpose. Having used a cell phone for over a decade, I had every intention of getting a new connection in Germany. It seemed like the natural thing to do.

However, cutting ties with my ex-phone-provider in the US turned out to be messier than a breakup. I had to pay a heavy price for terminating my two-year contract at the end of year one. A series of events led to long and futile conversations with their rather tardy customer service, hundreds of dollars and hours of lost sleep, a string of international calls, and loss of faith in their service. My cross-continental move had exhausted me, and I needed temporary respite from a telephone provider. Ironically, owning a phone in Germany is an easier process. You do not need to show your credentials, have a credit history, or have a contract to own a phone. You can just buy a pre-paid card, a phone, and use it on a need basis. However, my harrowing experience with Verizon had left me scarred, and I did not want to go through the same battle again in German, a language I do not speak or understand.

My bad experience turned out to be serendipitous. I never got that phone. I do not intend to anymore.

Using a phone, just like using anything, is a habit. And the thing with habits is that they change. Living without a cell phone is really easy in this age of technology. I am usually always online and checking emails at work or at home. Friends who need to talk write me emails or send me Facebook messages. On weekends I religiously Skype and video chat for hours with my close friends, all of who happen to live in the US. Ironically, I never talked to them as much when I actually had a phone.

I call my family in India using Google voice. 2 cents/minute is cheap enough, but not so cheap that I would engage in long, meaningless conversations. My mother could not figure out for a long time why I renounced the comforts of a phone. She came up with a string of theories (I was depressed, going through midlife crisis, trying to be stingy, etc.), and offered to buy me a phone, demanding to know how she might get in touch with me if there was a family emergency. I explained to her that in this age, trying to shut out someone might be a more difficult endeavor than trying to get in touch with someone. I stood my ground, and she eventually gave up.

So now that I have no phone, do I travel less? Not really. On the contrary, 2015 has been my most extensively travelled year, covering 22 cities in 13 countries. So the notion that one cannot travel without a phone is entirely wrong.

And how do I travel without a phone? Just like people traveled, and even invaded and conquered empires before the era of cell phones. I do my homework beforehand, meticulously reading maps and memorizing them. I had made free-hand drawings of the way to the hostel from the train station in Frankfurt (I knew that I was reaching pretty late at night, and my hostel was a good 15 minute away). Additionally, I use this amazing resource called human beings, asking for help, and learning to say please and thank you in the local language. Rather than seeking help from technology, I ask help from human beings.

And what if I am waiting and am bored? I don’t get bored actually. Far from it. Rather than succumbing to this compulsive habit of looking at a phone, I look around me. I watch people. I carry reading and writing material. I recently had a 5-hour layover at the Helsinki airport and a 7-hour layover at the Dubai airport. I chatted up with a few random people, enjoyed a nice hot bowl of salmon soup in Helsinki, and time flew while I did nothing in particular.

What if I get an important email while traveling? Really, what could be so important? Sure, there was a time I had a compulsive habit of browsing work emails, staying abreast of everything posted on Facebook, every news that had gone viral, a disaster, a tragedy, a malady, perhaps even some joyous news. Now, I am no longer attached to the idea of staying on top of things all the time. I couldn’t care less about what people are eating, what they are arguing and fighting about, what the activists are up to, and who is leading the baseball season. It is a selfish existence you might say, but it suits me fine. I do not chase news anymore. If news is important, it chases me.

Is it hard? Not at all. It is strangely liberating actually. It is one less thing to worry about (not worrying where you left your phone, not worrying about paying the phone bill or exhausting your talk time, no peer pressure to upgrade, among a few). I am not accountable for calling people or staying in touch with them every day. Nor do I feel bad if people do not call me every day. Yes, there are websites for booking flights and buses that need you to have a phone number. I just make up a random number, and tell them that email is the best way to reach me. Calcutta, Bombay, and many airports need you to give them a cell phone number to be able to access their internet (they send you a code on your cell phone). I just choose to read/write/snooze/reminisce/plan/fantasize [insert any verb of your choice] rather than browse the internet.

And how do people respond to this? My colleague, like my mother, got concerned and gave me an extra phone and a charger to use. It is still sitting unused in my office. My mom gave me a phone too, and I have no idea where it is. Obeying Lamarck’s theory of use and disuse, I have lost my instinct to jump and respond to a ringing phone. Most of the time, I ignore ringing phones.

At the end of the day, a cell phone is just one of the many methods of staying in touch. It is just a tool, and not the cause for strong friendships. This compulsive habit of being available at everyone’s beck and call or being reachable all the time doesn’t suit me anymore. This is not a Germany-specific malady. I was in the US for 2.5 months and in India for a month, and did great without a phone. While meeting someone, I look at the bus/train timetable (I have been without a car for 16 months too) and send them an email about my expected time of arrival. My life is not a continuous job where I have to be on-call all the time. Even without a phone, I have traveled more, made more friends, forged active research collaborations, and been able to stay in touch with everyone I want to. People wanting to meet me have taken international flights and found their way to Germany. I have connected with people even more, relearned to observe and reflect more, and channelized the extra time in pursuing newer interests like learning German and understanding the technology behind how airplanes fly.

Lastly, this write-up is not really about the vices of a phone. It is about learning to give up something familiar, rewiring my habits around it, and pushing myself to do something uncomfortable. It didn’t have to be a phone, it could be anything (well, I learned to give up driving too, and I used to be an avid driver). The good news is, meet me for a meal, and you will have all my attention. I will not be compulsively checking emails and texting out of habit.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

2015: Looking Back

Certain years in our lives pose questions, and other years provide answers. Looking back at the year that 2015 was, there are so many expected things that did not, and things unexpected that happened out of the blue. Most things that happened fall into predictable categories of academic achievements, expansion of writing interests, forging new friendships, and some extensive networking. There were some interesting first times too. Doing pot in Amsterdam. Taking the Amtrak from Chicago to Seattle. Getting my first internal grant. Seeing the largest sailing event in the world. First travel grant. Going back to the UW after 7 years. 

However, the one thing that stands out more than anything is travel. 2015 has been undoubtedly the most extensively traveled year of my life. Conferences, collaborations, family trips, personal travel, everything that was meant to happen happened. Every month, I visited at least one different country. That's a total of 22 different cities in 13 different countries, including six new countries. There were three discrete trips to India and two discrete trips to the US. There were two aborted trips to Luxembourg and Italy as well, but no complaints. At one point, I was wondering why I am even paying rent.

India: Kolkata is Kolkata. Most of my time there goes in meeting and eating. The interesting bit was visiting during Durga Puja for the first time ever since I left India. My last Durga Puja in Kolkata was in 2005. I was in Mumbai too, very briefly, and the only thing I remember of it was dining at Mahesh Lunch Home. Unarguably the best seafood restaurant I have dined at, do not miss ordering Solkadhi, the strawberry-milkshake-lookalike drink that is anything but strawberries and sugar. It blew me away. Talking of being blown away, Sikkim had pretty much that kind of effect on me. Clean air, plastic-free, the majestic snow-capped mountains, simple people, delicious Tibetian food, and pretty homes stacked up. That is how I will always remember the capital city, Gangtok. After viewing the Kanchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world) for two consecutive dawns from Gangtok, we went to Pelling to be able to get a better and much closer view of the mountains. However, the rain and bad weather ensured that the entire mountain is shrouded, and we saw nothing, despite excitedly waking up before dawn and waiting in the cold with camera gear. Forget seeing the mountains, even our sightseeing plans had to be cancelled. It rehashed an important life lesson. That moving physically closer to your destination doesn't necessarily mean that you will reach your destination. If something is meant to happen, it will. Most importantly, it might be good to have alternate plans in life, and move on. 

Canada, France, and UAE were short trips, mostly for meeting old friends or exploring a city during long layovers. Visiting the Scandinavian countries for the first time made me realize how short, and how poor I am. Malmö (Sweden) was nice, and so was Helsinki (Finland). Grey, exorbitant, but thankfully, English speaking. The interesting surprise was an unexpected cruise ship ride (my first time) from Helsinki to Tallinn (Estonia), when the smaller boats were cancelled due to bad weather. Try traveling in a cruise ship at least once. It is an amazing experience. The Baltic countries (Estonia, and Riga in Latvia) were very pretty, inexpensive, laidback, and replete with their eastern European charm.

In Germany, visiting the Berlin wall was a humbling experience. Even with everything I had read and the number of movies I watched over the years, nothing had prepared me for how I felt visiting it. For an onlooker who does not know, this would have seemed an ordinary park, a rather dilapidated one, with children playing, people running, and tourists taking pictures. Yet this place is full of history, full of stories that are not quite that old. Stories of pain and separation and letting go. And stories of courage and bravery and resilience of the human spirit. I was engulfed with a sense of sadness, a sense of shared grief for human suffering. But what I witnessed was also the victory of hope over suffering, of good over bad. May no wall be strong enough to confine and restrict the spirit, our dreams, love, and the sense of goodness. There are people who build walls, and there are also people who break those walls. Being here reaffirmed my faith in the resilience of the human spirit.

Lübeck turned out to be a very pretty northern German town, reminding me how pretty Germany is. The cobbled streets, the architecture, the pretty little cafes that serve amazing food and coffee in classy china, the churches and pretty homes, the waterfront, and the iconic Holsten Gate, Lübeck had to offer a lot. I spent the entire day walking, watching, reading, then walking some more, and taking in the pretty sights. Two of the many things about it- This is the home to the marzipan industry, and the home of Nobel laureate Günter Grass. Although a small place, Lübeck is actually home to three Nobel laureates.

Denmark was beautiful, and so was Switzerland. Amsterdam (Netherlands) turned out to be a city of canals, museums, and pot. I had the most amazing Indonesian food in Amsterdam. I was not aware of Netherland’s colonial history, and how Indonesian cuisine became a part of Dutch food. Seriously, when in Amsterdam, do not miss eating Indonesian.

USA: The other interesting experience was taking the Empire Builder train (Amtrak) from Chicago to Seattle ($140 one way). It leaves Chicago Union Station at 2:15 pm CST, and 46 hours later, reaches Seattle at 10:30 am PST. The scenery for more than half the trip was uneventful (unless you are like me, who loves watching any kind of landscape). I saw a lot of fields, birds, and arid lands in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. However, the real change started on the evening of day 2, while we were crossing Glacier National Park in Montana. The sunset was amazing. The mountains were huge. After that, it was really pretty for the rest of the trip.

The seats were much better and more comfortable than the ones in an airplane. They recline very well, and given that only half the train was full, I had two seats to myself. So I actually managed to get into a fetal position and sleep well for two nights. However, if you do not fall asleep easily, I would not recommend it.

The dining car and the observation deck had an amazing 270 degree view. YouTube has some nice videos of how it looks inside the train and the observation deck. The food was quite pricey, and nothing to die for (the menu is available online). I had anticipated this. So I carried my own food to last me for the trip, including biryani from Ghareeb Nawaz in Chicago. But then, that's me. I can sleep well, and eat biryani under any circumstances.

There is no internet, unless you have your own. I don't know about cell phone connectivity, since I did not have one. Not anymore. I was surprised at how many people boarded the train with me, and went all the way to Seattle. At some point, the train bifurcated. Half of it went to Seattle, and the other half to Portland.

Dress in layers. It was freezing at night. The restrooms were clean and big. No complaints. Also, you can check in a lot of luggage, much more than airplanes allow you. Overall, it was a great experience, and I would do it again. But then, I love trains, watching landscapes, and I was not in a hurry. If you don't have the time and are more into "tick mark tourism", this is not for you.

This is a short summary of some of the places I visited in 2015. I am not sure what 2016 has in store. As weird as it sounds, I think that I might be ready to be home, be rooted for a change, and develop different hobbies that does not require as much travel.