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.

Advertisements

Adiós Facebook

I have a confession to make: I  was an addict, a social-media addict. I was so used to mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed without registering any information, or at times, remembering insignificant details of others’ lives. I found myself remembering random irrelevant people (destroying the natural progression of life where people and friendships fall by the wayside ) and during the last five years, found facebook nothing but a glorified wedding album of sorts.

I remember creating my account sitting in my college library upon hearing about this new facebook website that seemed so much more fun than Orkut, the social media craze of its time. (Gosh, it feels old typing this). I missed the Myspace wave but was firmly latched on to Orkut. Orkut testimonials felt like an electronic slam book with conversation threads and groups. Slam books were all the dope in high-school and it felt nice to immediately convert the slam book filling experience to an electronic one bolstered by the sadness and uncertainty experienced at the cusp of college life leaving one’s home and school behind. But Orkut wasn’t addictive and the dull blue and purple color gave it an old-fashioned feel. Facebook, with its clean white and blue page structure and “poking” options was a fun thing to do in college. The influence and power wielded by the social media giant today and its content and feel are nothing like what they were 10-15 years ago. To be honest, I think it lost a lot of its “fun” feeling converting itself from a college hobby to one of the largest media outlets in the world ( Even though Zuckerberg might insist on calling it a tech company, I think he should just accept that it isn’t just a tech company anymore).

With advancements in AI, algorithms, big data, social media evolved into time black holes and emotional manipulators, tapping into basic human vulnerability and emotional depravity. I read about tools such as SDK which spy on you all the time, algorithms and features deliberately designed to make one addicted and about how the facebook model has turned users into products with targeting advertising. The look and feel of the website has changed so much not just superficially, but in its ability to control people’s minds as well. Targeted posts, so much advertising, ability to log and post every single detail of our lives started out as interesting at first and now feels rather scary. For me, the final straw was fake news – the true black plague of the cyber era.

Fake news is poison and clickbait is like mold that threatens to infect any lesser-vigilant user. I needn’t mention the ramifications of fake news at all – just look at the Presidential elections in the USA in 2016. As legal authorities clamp down on what actually transpired leading up to the national debacle, Facebook’s name gets thrown around frequently. Indeed, as the largest distributor of (fake) news and targeted advertising, it brought to light the algorithms and psychological tricks used by the giant to draw users and keep them hooked.

I am not qualified to describe these algorithmic inventions and uber successful psychological warfare unleashed on the unsuspecting users by facebook. But I definitely was one of its victims. As studies upon studies come out  revealing why this social media platform captured the public’s imagination and time, one thing is clear – it clearly worked. I found myself opening the app and wishing to “check-in” during my activities or scrolling through profiles of people I have no contact with or have no intent to contact. It was unnerving to know what my friend from kindergarten ate for dinner yesterday without a conversation in over two decades.

It isn’t without its benefits. For people from the older generation who are now slowly settling into retired life, it is a second chance at re-establishing their friend’s circle and reconnecting after decades. When I hear my mom or dad talk, I can envision Zuckerberg’s lofty, well crafted and seemingly innocent vision of having the world more connected come to life. The first few weeks of being on facebook are indeed exciting – you  get to see how your friend’s lives shaped up and view photographs of them and their families. For the generation that grew up with facebook however, the thrill and excitement is long gone.

So I quit. I quit cold turkey one morning when I decided I no longer needed to see and debate if news articles were authentic or click on useless videos that were trending. I realized at the risk of losing out, I would get back my peace of mind, restore sanity and read news articles from their trusted origins and forego the requirement of leaving behind an electronic trail of my life for data scientists at facebook to pore over and decide to push out advertisements tailor made for me.

The surprising part is I don’t miss it. Not one bit.

The supporting cast

Any success story will tell you that the supporting cast is as important as the leads. Be it film production (the most literal analogy) where hundreds of supporting cast and crew function in the background to make cine-magic happen or corporations where the leadership is held aloft by an ably trained and managed work force. In the case of individuals, several popular sayings exist, such as “Behind any successful man/woman, there is a successful man/woman.” In today’s times, when a large part of the young Indian workforce emigrates to the western world in search of career opportunities and wealth, the supporting cast comes clearly into view. I am referring to obviously – parents and spouse. Each having their own roles to play, let me shine light upon the parental crew first.

This was the generation of Indian parents who sacrificed their comforts and faced restrictions of a semi-socialist, closed economy to uplift their economic standards to form the largest middle/upper-middle class in history. Indian middle-class, comprised largely of such hard working folks forms the foundations of a society that is deeply entrenched in a conflict of tradition, culture and modernity and placed the burden of its progress solely on education. Education proved to be its salvation and millions of youngsters flew out to seek greener pastures, higher education, improved standard of living and wealth. Owing to our rigorous education system (debatable and is a lot more nuanced than this simple description) and various other societal pressures, a large number of Indians found their education and skills desirable and functional in the western world.  With fear in their heart, hopes and dreams in their eyes, hundreds of parents hid their tears as they waved goodbyes to their wards from airports all over the country.

Fast-forward a few years and now their children have settled into their new lives, owning homes, driving fast cars, working for big companies and earning comfortably enough to be well within the upper echelons of the western world as well. They now invite parents to spend time with them in their new surroundings and experience the life they have built. Parents fly in willingly, to experience the joys and fruits of their hard word and persistence. Vistas or places heard about in books, news reports and mentioned once by the very rich, are now within reach. The parents also get to partake in a version of the ‘American Dream’.

Once the initial joys of visiting and experiencing the USA dies down (maybe in 2-3 trips spread across many years), the finer nuances of living in the US come to the fore. American culture is a far-cry from the very-involved, familial and interwoven communities existing in all societies that have evolved from ancient civilizations – Oriental, Arab, Persian, Greek and of course Indian. Loneliness raises its ugly head as parents, left alone after their children,children-in-law are off to work and grand kids are away at school, face an excruciating 6-8 hours of being alone, in an alien land, far away from their stomping grounds. Faced with responsibilities of mundane tasks such as cooking, cleaning or babysitting, without the freedom of their own place, the mind begins to rot. Now before you go all nuclear on me by quoting exceptions of how parents are now very well adapted to this life – driving, shopping, heading to temples and trying to form their own mini-circles, I speak for a large part of the population that still hesitates to call this place their own. Children rely on their parents restarting their life in a way to help them out with babysitting, childcare, cooking and raising grand children while they are away slaving away in cubicles night and day. Now, Indian culture is very accustomed to having grandparents be very involved in these activities, but bringing them across the seven seas to do it seems a tad exploitative to me .

Even though most Indians who make it here are proficient in English, their parents might not be. They often struggle to deal with the heavy accent (having watched none of the sitcoms or heard the music that their kids did),  battle nerves as they go behind the wheel and deal with fast-moving traffic as they never have back home or when they live in suburbia in the states, feel trapped by the lack of accessible shops or things to do. They have to ask the children to drive them everywhere and depend on the weekend for a chance to break out of the routine and do something fun. It feels like  entrapment for someone used to his/her own freedom in the comforts of their own people and land – bouts of anger, frustration and irritation begin to appear among both the parents and their wards. They feel disconnected with friends and family back home due to the time-difference and general lack of internet awareness. Did I mention that this is the generation where millions struggle with the tech revolution and fumble with buttons trying to see faces of their children/family/loved-ones once a week? Yupp/Sling TV and the occasional ride to the mall to watch that Indian movie becomes their sole connection to a life on hold. Purchasing power, where your hard earned money is downgraded in terms of value and your children buy things for you might also feel wrong for someone who has led a life of self-sufficiency and has saved enough to live the life of their dreams back home. Forming a social circle of parents has a huge initiation barrier and feels forced upon for want of other alternatives. Imagine, if you work your whole life expecting to retire comfortably, meet long-lost relatives and friends who have been left behind in the hustle-bustle of life and enjoy the joys of being with your grand children and being able to pamper them with goodies and treats on your own terms but suddenly being denied all of it. Most parents I know, contemplate never returning for the aforementioned reasons.

My point here is that, we, the first generation immigrants here are an entitled bunch. We rode on the sacrifices of our parents in India. They willingly led carefully planned lives, skimping on extravagant vacations and material comforts for themselves but built their lives around educational (best schools, coaching, sports lessons), cultural opportunities for us (dance classes, music lessons) and opened doors for our careers and encouraged us to live our dreams. With heavy hearts, they accepted our decision to live thousands of miles away and were content with annual or bi-annual short vacations to meet us in person.  Sadly, that wasn’t enough for us. They continue to sacrifice their retired dreams and lock the lives they have painstakingly built for months on end, for us to continue living ours. They transform themselves into cooks, baby sitters, drivers so our lives can go uninterrupted and we enjoy the best of both worlds. Next time, spare a thought for their sacrifices, for this supporting cast will never dare complain.

Wet restarts

It is the hurricane season and true to its word, gigantic, powerful storms have slammed the south and south-eastern United States. I am a distant observer, perched in the ash-covered, wildfire ravaged Pacific north-west, but I have had experiences of dealing with weather-related floods (twice) and an unfortunate sprinkler flooding. Watching the soggy images on TV and reading news reports makes me reminisce about my own experiences with water damage and restarting life afterwards.

It isn’t pretty. Water, the benign liquid we take for granted, is way more powerful than it looks. Anything that touches water is gone – damaged forever and needs to be discarded. As communities focus on rebuilding, these measures are easier said than done. The first time I experienced floods was in Kota, Rajasthan. Yes, flooding happened in the desert state. I am painfully oblivious to the watershed and other natural drainage systems of that area, but I can vividly recall the hysteria and panic I faced when my one bedroom rental room was threatened by floods. Our landlord who lived upstairs, rushed downstairs early morning to tell us the water was here. I was sleepy from a late-night study session and woke with the worst shock of my life. I remember stacking all my books and notes on my chair which I then put on top of my table. I remember clearing out the last three shelves of the cupboards, rolling my cotton bedding and stuffing it on top of my chair. I saw the water flow in from under the doors into the room and prayed that my bizarre contraption held its own during the flooding. Thankfully, all my prized possessions (my coaching notes and textbooks, nice clothes and bedding) could fit on top of the table which turned out to be higher than the water level. I left for upstairs in a hurry, barefoot and scared.

We spent the day watching the flood waters climb from the second floor (first in Indian terms). Roads turned into rivers, pigs swam in the muddy, dirty waters. Shocked and confused students living in houses nearby tried to salvage their possessions. After a while, it turned to fun. We watched the incessant rain and grey skies dump water into the streets that had turned into rivers. No power, no classes for the day and food was thankfully provided to us by our landlord. The day or two that followed weren’t as bad, it was the aftermath that caused the greatest grievances.

The water had caused all the wooden doors to swell up preventing them from shutting properly. Anything left on the floor or touched by the dirty waters had to be discarded. The room reeked of fungus and mold and would feel moist for months later ( I developed the worst kind of fungal cold for months afterwards). No amount of new paint or whitewashing or bathroom cleaning could remove 100% of the smell or mold. Fungus would grow in anything that touched water and was forgotten. I found fungus on clothes that barely touched the water, inside the walls, between the door frame and any notebooks that remained remotely wet. My cycle needed new wheels and chain from all the corrosion.  I don’t think my room ever recovered from the water damage. Thankfully, I left the place within 6-7 months of the event. But that was the first time I experienced flooding and the grimy, moldy aftermath of it.

My second run-in with water damage was no weather phenomenon but a man-made one. Never the one to have any  luck when it came to room-mates, I suffered the biggest setback of my graduate life when my then room-mate started a kitchen fire. I used to occupy the hall (bigger, more spacious with balcony access) with direct access to the open kitchen. The fire triggered the sprinkler system which poured water over everything I had, my books, bed, laptop, plants until there was 3-4 inches of water in my hall. I lost everything ( thankfully, my most important notes and research findings were electronically backed up) and had to navigate through the renters insurance system to recover costs. I can clearly recall my room-mate’s voice asking me to come home since there had been a “minor” incident. That was my second restart in the three short years I had spent in the USA. The first had been caused by bed-bugs. That story is for another time.

The most recent run-in with flooding happened in 2015 in India. I have blogged about the floods in Chennai – a mix of unprecedented rainfall, shoddy management, absent rescue efforts, zero communication and government conspiracy, that shocked the city. I must consider myself supremely lucky to be at home with my parents when it all unfolded, in addition to water not entering our house at all. Our apartment complex built on higher ground was marooned but the presence of mom and dad, along with 50 other families helped our small community navigate the crisis flawlessly. Yes, we saw boat-rescues, had no power for over 8 days, no internet or phone connection and had to rely on some creative recipes by mom who fed us delicious, hot meals made in the glow of 10 candles. We spent quality time together, narrating stories, hanging out in the same room burning the scented gum (sambrani) to keep mosquitoes and moisture at bay, slathering copious amounts of bug repellent and tracking our inverter charge to determine which room to sleep in. We slept on the floors (the beds were too warm), forgot what refrigerators were used for and charged our phones during the one hour power we got from the apartment’s common generators. For months, I saw trash-piles that were several feet high (not unlike those one can see in Florida and Houston) as people discarded all their belongings. The city decided ultimately to burn it all, to prevent diseases and curb the emanating stench which threw up smoke and acrid odors from all the burning materials. Recovery isn’t pretty. Not one bit.

So, three times being affected by water and it hasn’t become any less scary. Today, I live in a place not commonly affected by floods but as the TV showed heartbreaking images of hurricane devastation in Florida, I couldn’t help but wonder if I could evacuate at a moment’s notice like I did 13 years ago in Kota? I have furnished my home painstakingly, brick by brick and it would absolutely crush me to lose most of it to catastrophic water damage. After three restarts, can I deal with another?

Guilty as charged!

I’ve ignored this space for so long, I’m surprised the folks at wordpress still kept this alive! (Bless them). So, long story short, this year so far has been pretty big. I landed job offers, published papers, wrote my dissertation, defended it, wrapped up my Atlanta settlement, got my family over for commencement, got a truck load of pics and fancy dresses (for the same), moved to Buffalo, bought a car, settled in and wait for it… got Whisky to stay with me (which was the best graduation gift ever!)!
So, I’m ready for the new innings as not-a-student. I’m still a pretty new not-a-student ( I hate being called – grown up, working woman blah blah) and I’m loving it so far.
But this post aint about Buffalo (that one is in the works) or the immeasurable joy of not asking anyone for rides anymore. This one is for Texas, where everything is bigger and badass.
I experienced the joys of being a chemical engineer and visited an actual, functioning, refinery. (I think 10 years of training as one should suffice. )Those things are just insanely huge and complex. First few hours, the intricate network of pipes that are hundreds of kilometers long, wrapped around each other, emerging from some of the biggest crackers and distillation units amazed me. It is like intricate zardosi except done by drafters and probably some of the best engineers the world has ever seen! The second thing that got to me was that these things work, and not just work, they function almost as per design. Now that is something I’m still grappling with. Unless modeled to perfection and designed so accurately, there is no way that reactors and reformers who work with energy levels equaling that of atomic bombs everyday, can function so accurately without dramatic events unfolding on a daily basis! Motivates me to turn into a perfectionist next time I’m designing one of these babies.

No, I’m not turning into a plant engineer. I am here to do research and the opportunity to see these engineering marvels up close has revived the sedated engineer in me. It is a tough life no doubt. But this is a completely different world, far from the swanky glass and wood buildings, cubicles, cafeterias that serve hundreds of cuisines, bustling restaurants, health conscious bicyclists, runners, dog-walkers and discussions on the viral memes or videos. This is full of pick-up trucks, dirt roads, Texan barbecue restaurants serving a host of animals slathered in homemade sauce, tattooed burly men in steel toed shoes and overalls (I wore them too btw and contrary to popular opinion (the few that exist) the overalls actually help in the scorching heat) and folks who can pinpoint the exact malfunctioning valve among a million just be looking at a single number. It ain’t desert like though, it is actually very green and crisscrossed by a number of estuaries and the town sits prettily right next to the port. It looks spectacular at night. Oh, did I mention the breeze at 150 ft late at night? It is gorgeous. Just like the sea breeze on a cool November evening in Chennai. You can see the bridges, the port lights, the tankers waiting to fill up the liquid gold and the horizon dotted with flares from all the refineries lined up on the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, life ain’t easy for anyone here. The work is interesting but physically taxing, sometimes the antics of the plant are frustrating and the accents are mentally taxing to process. But this was my glimpse into the reality of my models, the stuff I’ve studied and researched on a computer for half a decade – and it is nothing like I ever worked on. It is different and in a league of its own. It is like waking up from the cozy virtual computer controlled lives and looking at the places where things are actually made and being shocked into reality.
I liked it. I don’t know yet if I’m coming back. But it is nice to sit high off the ground, listening to country music on the radio in steel shoes and a hard hat and watch the million flickering lights of one of the largest refineries in the world.

Ps: Happy Birthday India. Have a good one!

Yes, I’m back in business. Follow this space for more 🙂

Girl Talk: Sorrows and Joys

Sometimes, things just seem so perfect. Like when the only vegetable you have left is brussles sprouts and wonder what one can make of it and your favourite cookbook author posts a recipe using the very same vegetable. Aha, I like it. Anyway rantings apart, I recently read something about keeping your sorrows close and your joys closer and realized this was my biggest lesson of 2011(and of another blogger who I love). I feel this is a talisman that one needs to remember to survive. (This brief is for people who read just the first paragraph – so you can skip reading the rest 😀 )

The world is at its competitive best now. We are just fighting to gain that extra ounce of information or as Devdutta Pattanaik puts it – Sanatan. Because we didnt drink the elixir of contenment, we are always searching for something. Like that extra mile we want to go because someone has already been there, or that toy we want because our friend has it. Children provide the most blatant display of competitiveness and as adults we learn to mask it under the pretext of politeness, concern and nowadays just the word friendship. It is easier now than ever to look up a person and get all possible information without being in contact for 20 years or even being in contact now. It is easy to make friends, to upkeep friendships ( a hi on gtalk is so much easier compared to writing a letter, given the large-assed sloths we have been converted to).It is easier to access information about any and everything. All this media access has given us an all-encompassing ego where we pick our best photographs for the world to see, create online personalities, fake hobbies and do everything for an unknown reason. And most importantly has blurred the true meaning of friendship. We bare our hearts to these very people, since they are the support that we never get from a family but with statistics that show you are friends with the population of entire towns, you tend to wonder who is true and who isnt. Are people truly happy to hear you out? Are they smirking with inexplicable glee when you are feeling depressed. Do they secretly want you to fail so that they feel better themselves?

For women, talking is a cathartic process. I feel better when I’ve told someone what exactly is bothering me be it academically or personally. Its feels good to just share it with someone, giving it more reality and helps me cope with it when I acknowledge in e-ink or ink that the situation is real. But I wonder sometimes how much of it percolates as genuine concern and how much is just a part of everyone doing a silent jig at someone’s misfortune. I learnt multiple lessons all through, paid huge prices for my honesty but didnt seem to care because I always had a clear mind of having spoken the truth and being myself with everyone around. The same reason I kept close to a small set of people I was convinced are the true ones . But I realize time has come to change. This attitude is more harmful to me than anyone else and I’ve reformed now, to the ways of the world. I made a clear distinction of the ones who are rare and true and the countless others who are just names with a green bullet next to them.

Do not mistake me for being depressed or sad. I am infact the happiest I’ve been. (Ah, some happiness levels obviously sliding down). But this was an important lesson for me. In that sense, a very very important year as well.

New year beckons

Its that time of the year already. Busy or not, every passing year does make jaws drop. Another year! Already? 2012 is already here; the year Mayans told would be the last; the year that seemed so far away into the future. We are already well into the second decade of the 00’s and boy Ive started to realize how time has flown. I see birthdates of 1996 on facebook and people are getting hitched. People I know, I played with are suddenly married. Of course the next year will see many more but the new year isnt as comfortable as it once was. That awesome feeling of just updating the correct dates everyday in school or the party that would ring it in, the prize distribution ceremonies or the next summer vacation does not count much thesedays. But hey, whats a new year without a fresh start. Stale as my research might be there was a lot of things I learnt this year tangentially related to my work. How to oraganize, plan, think, report in a neat, impressive manner and importantly inculcate self-discipline in all spheres of life. Sounds like too much gyaan no? It is. It was a year not too spectacular in any way save the fact that this marks the first year i never set foot on Indian soil. Sad, but true. But I’m starting 2012 with a bang! India trip and whisky. hmmmmm…can i hear sniffles already?
Have fun folks and a very very happening 2012. ( In a good way of course)