Are you afraid of the cold?

Newly faced with a proper 6 month long winter as a part of the calendar year when I moved to the US, I needed to make adjustments to my lifestyle. Far from the “winters” of India where I experienced the occasional zero degree weather in the doon valley (it included me sticking my head out of the doors and windows to feel the freezing temperature, much to my mom’s chagrin) and being oddly happy that it was the temperature where water froze. Winters were cozy affairs, with days spent sitting in the sun (and dozing, only to be woken up by a nasty headache) and having “tel-maalish” or head massages with mustard oil. Razais and wool blankets prevented any morning activity and getting out of bed was a chore. School uniforms included sweaters and blazers ( I was very jealous that mine never had those smart blazers as part of the uniform and I never wore one), caps and other color-coordinated winter gear. In theory and in my very biased memory, I recall feeling very cold and facing “brutal” winters. In reality, that was only “mild fall weather” when compared to what this north American continent faces.

Faced with long sub-zero nights and uncomfortable wind chills, outdoor life comes to a grinding halt. The pups no longer get their hour-long evening strolls, vegetation goes into hibernation (or in my case, ceases to survive) and the roads become quiet and isolated. It is one thing to protect oneself against the winter and have a version of hibernation in your home, but when the conditions ease – the one day of bright warm sunshine or where I live right now, the non-rainy day, the pattern of zero movement continues. I don’t see anyone outside and catch only a glimpse of someone scurry from their door to their car. We have temperature control everywhere – homes, offices, schools, malls, shops and can actually spend winters without ever facing the outdoors thanks to connected garages in homes. There is no dearth of winter jackets, coats, gloves, caps and other gear that do a magnificent job of keeping one toasty, in-spite of the elements. I then wonder, why does no one venture out? Why so afraid of the cold?

I share the pang of disappointment with my dogs, as they expectantly wait for their friends to come out of their homes during winters.  We let a collective sigh and look up at the lit curtained windows and wall mounted TV’s playing football matches or America’s Top Model, with folks presumably curled up on their couches, refusing to venture outside. I wonder what makes them so afraid of the winters? Maybe it is a feature of the American suburbia where this complete isolation during winters occurs. I think a big, bustling city would be a different story altogther.

We trudge back home, wet and muddy. Yet another day passes by, where not a soul is seen outside.


The pursuit of happy-ness

The 2006 film of the same name shows the story of a single father who faces insurmountable odds at first and eventually ties the ends of the protagonist’s frayed life beautifully. The movie ends with the father being successful at what he does, a typical tale of hard work, perseverance and luck ultimately bringing success and much needed financial stability to the protagonist’s life. But is the protagonist ultimately happy with his newfound wealth and stability? We will never know.

Such stories abound in the Indian diaspora that is thriving outside the country today. You hear of folks from modest backgrounds, with parents living very middle-class lives, only dreaming of the lifestyles their wards lead today. But the part I have since realized is missing, both in the movie and reality is the happiness. I work in a society full of accomplished individuals, smart and tech-savy, making many times more than the American average salary, living in posh-neighborhoods, driving swanky cars and warmly clothed in their expensive Columbia jackets. It looks great on the outside. These people have proverbially “made it”, aced tough competitive exams, majored in various engineering fields, worked hard through graduate school here living in near-poverty conditions, bagged prestigious jobs and now lead cushy lives. Everyone’s life is like a movie tale. But only a small fraction of them seem to be generally happy.

I am not saying one must be happy and upbeat when faced with a crisis or an emergency. Those are unfortunate but necessary experiences faced during a lifetime. But what about that occasional gathering? That birthday party? The impromptu dinner or lunch? Or a drive to the beach with friends? I have begun to notice that the upbeat conversation fades quickly and is replaced by a constant worry – of job security, deportation, company financials and more recently – immigration status. Those are valid reasons to worry, no doubt. Private companies don’t provide the cushion of job security or retirement benefits and the tech-sector is especially vulnerable to setbacks and layoffs. But is the other alternative constant worry? Do we strive to improve our lives only to mentally burden ourselves with the fear of losing it all? Where do we draw the line between being ambitious and anxious?

Everyone is different and handles a crisis, imaginary or real, differently. The pressure to perform well in tests, get a good college degree, job and working hard are directives issued in pursuit of the eventual “good” comfortable life. We worked towards a better standard of living, a job where you could have a positive impact on the world and enjoy life. I see everyone living swanky lives , enjoying fantastic vacations, buying large mansions and cars but being generally unhappy because they constantly worry about something. Yuval Noel Harrari, in his book “Sapiens” points out that human beings in their pursuit of a better life have actually increased their burdens and revved up the pace and anxiety. He rightly calls it “The Luxury trap”. Are we being ensconced in this trap as well? Does the promise of earning money, living the desirable life, holidaying in famous places around the world come at the cost of mental peace and sanity?

I will not be the first to point out the exponential rise in stress being faced by our generation. The stress to maintain the lifestyle, being threatened by unfavorable immigration policies, the peer pressure and competition today in the work-force are all man-made evils. It is no wonder that our parents’ generation were more social, interactive and generally happier. To me, personally, if you aren’t able to be happy and constantly seek that utopian existence without risks and only rewards, you have to evaluate what your ultimate goal is. The phrase “Happiness comes from within” is often overlooked and brushed off. But the ability to be at peace and pursue the feeling of being joyous without depending on circumstances all the time is key to avoiding feeling blue for something or another.

I still pursue happiness. I am aided in no small measure by wet noses and wagging tails who welcome me home everyday. Their love, excitement, happiness and ability to live in the moment is not actually an evolutionary drawback, maybe it is the real goal.

The minimalist life

Recently, I watched a documentary “The Minimalist” on Netflix. I might be late to the game, but I realized how the American marketing companies had me in their tight grip. Not an obsessive or compulsive shopper by any yardstick, but the concept of the true “worth” of an item had undergone a gradual shift in my worldview. I have been swept away by trends in both fashion and electronics, stashed away books half-read because their second and third parts no longer piqued my interest, and despite regular donations, found myself suddenly surrounded by a lot of things. I liked the concept of the “American template” that the documentary could clearly debunk, which is what I describe in this blog.

One of the first things anyone will notice when they first land here is the supersizing. It caught me unawares. It was a sort of decompression, as though everything that was compressed and shrunk back home, was allowed to expand into its normal or abnormal size here. Not only were the cars bigger, the roads wider but the appliances were gigantic, fridges could fit a kid easily, the couches were gargantuan and everything, from the galleon milk jugs to cereal boxes and bowls, everything is very very large. Over time, one gets used to it and finds stuff smaller back home. The American dream, I figure is “big”. Everything, from the literal size to the ambitions and opportunities tend to be large here. Accumulating a large amount of stuff is a part of that. Advertisements and societies slowly built on the idea of “more is better”. Larger homes and things are ascribed to powerful people and the yardstick of success slowly became what you can buy vs. what you are/did. This vicious cycle is what leads to the excessive production of “stuff” that we no longer need, but desire.The part about homes being so much larger nowadays as opposed to 30-40 years ago with 3 car garages but people requiring additional storage space shown in the documentary is eye-opening. I am nowhere in that ballpark in terms of what I own, but I shudder at the thought of drowning in so much stuff. With no ambitions of living in 4000 q.ft  houses and managing 3 garages worth of items, the idea of living using a different alternate template appeals to me.  The real template, is not to own less but to value more.

For example, I love my books. I have carefully curated a collection, mostly in print (and some in electronic format). The minimalist trend is not to immediately dispose them due to their bulk and occupied space, but to keep only what you value. I helped me finally overcome the barrier to donating and giving away books I won’t revisit or did not complete (something we never did growing up). Marie Kondo uses the term “joy” to describe this addition of value and personal connection to any item you own. To me, value is a clearer concept than joy and this in its bare form, is minimalism.

Finally, it might also be a right of passage. The thrill of earning your first salary, of having your own economic standing and finally fulfilling childhood dreams of buying stuff you liked with your own money is unmatched. But as time marches on and you realize that all that stuff is also adding  responsibility (if not joy or value), it quickly becomes burdensome to pack and move and drag those possessions along just because you bought it. The Minimalist opened my eyes and influenced my thinking about material goods in profound ways.

Let’s hope being a minimalist and downsizing is one resolution I can stick to. Oh and by the way, Happy New Year to whoever is still reading this blog!