A grand old dame | let us eat cake (The Sibelius Chronicles)

A grand old dame

“Hello!” Sibelius chimes, looking too happy for a Saturday night.

I am understandably concerned. The last time he had turned up so cheerful at my doorstep, I had ended up having to explain why he had switched over to a math department TA-ship to his formidable mother.

“Happy Onam!”

I tell him it is over. He says a festival not yet celebrated could not be possibly over. Against my better senses, I accept his gift. It turns out to be two bottles of a grand old dame. I don’t even drink vodka, unless it comes in ice-cream. Most of my alcohol consumption is via ice-cream.

Onam isn’t a potato harvest festival. I don’t even like potatoes. He assures me that vodka is many, many steps away from potatoes.

It is a good brand. So I fetch my bucket of Trader Joe’s vanilla ice-cream, we open a bottle, and he plays O Fortuna on his guitar. I have never heard that played on a guitar. It is good. It gets better when I accompany him on the keyboard. The vodka helps a great deal, especially when we start singing. It helps even more when we start talking about Thoreau and academia. God knows that my convalescing self needs a great amount of alcohol to even contemplate academia.

I tell him about the Goldfinch, a book that had been my cafe read for a while. I have finally completed it. It is a good story, though a tad too American for my tastes. It also made me want to go to New York and spend a year or two there. It was a magical place in the book. Too chaotic for my nature, definitely, but wondrous nevertheless.

In general, wanderlust has been strong in me recently and I am tiring of California. The food is great around here, but how people try to pass off other motivations as idealism gets to me. It is perfectly all right to be motivated by whatever you are motivated by. It is not necessary to be idealist. I don’t like it when someone tries to sell me something different disguised as idealism.

I was asked to be a judge at a poetry contest recently. I listened to the appalling poems, listened to what their friends and family applauded as talent and brilliance, and came away wretched. Networks make you. I am horrible at networking, I am horrible at even dealing with people unless there is true resonance on some level, and my introversion is a tragedy that has haunted me all my life.

“You have tanned!” Sibelius points out. I serve more ice-cream. It is the swimming. I glare at him. Not all of us have the luxury of tree-shaded backyard pools. I could stop, but the stress relief swimming a few laps everyday has been granting me is too precious to lose.

There is a long discussion on the various demerits of his advisor. It is more a rant, really. I bring out my card of three dozen emails in a night from my ex-advisor. There is a reason for that ex. Thankfully, the next advisor had been a much better match. We talk about Stanford. My dealings with the labs there are less complicated than his dealings with their administration.

“I will be twenty-five soon,” he laments.

We spend the mandatory fifteen minutes reminiscing over our association which had begun in the late summer of 2012. We had attended symphonies using our student IDs to get cheap tickets. The box office knew us well by the end of that season. We went to the 14th street playhouse for adapted Shakespeare. We went to the Fox when we could afford it. We had drunk cheap wine and eaten pad-thai out of take-away boxes under the ivy of the church on Peachtree a few blocks from the Bank of America there. His mother forced cold lemonade on us and made us help her with her prize bulbs in her large garden. He taught me swing-dancing. We danced for Thanksgiving that year and at the half-a-dozen parties his mother coerced us into.

I remember my twenty-fifth very well. I had walked around the pond near Atlantic Station with Yoda, and he had told me something about how it was time to grow up, to get serious about everything, to start taking care of my health, and to think about what I wanted to truly do with my life.  It was a lifetime ago.

“You. Tell me about you,” my new concert partner asks. She is a decent pianist. She has a great ear for music.

What do I tell her? She is considerably older than me. Sheltered, well-educated, and beautiful, she is a darling. I have lived more, even if I hadn’t necessarily set out to. I don’t tell her. She doesn’t need to know about all that brought me here, as we stand together on Patricia’s Green and smile for the photo she wants.

Let us eat cake

The morning sees us nursing cold beer, because Sibelius assures me that this is the best way to get rid of the headache. He is confident about this and I hope his mother doesn’t hear about it. Since my tolerance of beer is next to nil, I decide to have ice-cream as accompaniment.

It has been forever since I have had Tiramisu. Sibelius laughs and tells me that even my heavily-budgeted purse can buy a slice of Tiramisu without too much strain. It isn’t the buying. Tiramisu is associated in my head with other warm and cosy things. We end up at a bakery in San Mateo, and have tiramisu for brunch.

“How was Onam?” he asks me.

I think about the association event I had been intending to attend. They had a feast. I had been meaning to go and network. My father had asked me to, I vaguely remember. I had been dreading the many aunties and uncles there who would come and sound me out about marriage. I had been dreading the bold, single men there who make me want to go home and hide for the next few months.

Onam was vanilla ice-cream, vodka, tiramisu and Thoreau, and a full night of conversation. It wasn’t that bad, even if my tolerance of alcohol seems to have to gone with my tolerance of caffeine in the months between graduation and now.

“Do you want to see the new Mission Impossible?”

I don’t want to. Still, I am sleepy and I sleep well in movie theatres. Sibelius likes the Mission Impossible series for some unfathomable reason.

“Will you come with me to the concert?”

I should have known better than to barter with a lawyer, because he cuts me a deal that is tremendously unfair.

“It is for your own good,” he says.

I suppose it is. I promise him a novel for Christmas.

—-

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Bewitched

My interns are leaving. They were a good bunch. I was proud of how they handled their demos and presentations under pressure. I am not proud of giving in to their various whims and pleas. They thanked me for defending their interests to the higher-ups and taking off some of the pressure from them in the current stressful period at work. Taller and older than I am, they still somehow come across as Peter Pans. God, graduating has made me leave that neverland.  It was all so long ago, and it was just yesterday.

I somehow was persuaded to go to a guitar concert by the beach in a few weeks. I should have known to stay away from beautiful, bossy women. It never ends well for me. What can I say? It was a very beautiful and bossy woman.

I have spent the better part of my week ferrying a fellow about. He introduced me to Mumford and Sons this week. In this twilight, how dare you speak of grace?

New blog theme. Since summer is ending and it is nearly Christmas, I decided to change the theme. I had forgotten to do that for a while, what with everything on my overflowing plate.

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Car tales

The car was rear-ended, again. In a parking lot. Watched it in slow-motion. Yet to recover from the sight.

The positive side of it is that when I took it for damage appraisal, they noticed a nail in one of the tires. Managed a day on the spare. Then it was back to the dealer. It cost to get it replaced, but it was a good thing. The prettiness of the rear-bumper will be fixed sometime this week or the next, once insurance pays. It is too expensive to deal with otherwise.

Spent hours with insurance folks. Necessary and tiring.

All the running around, with the job pressure these days, sleep difficulties, general life madness, ended up in a low blood pressure episode. Doctor wants to do a test for anemaia. Will put it off until the car thing is wrapped up.

So much to do and I still haven’t figured out half the things I wanted to this year. God, I used to be capable of more. I have grown lax in my middle-age. Maybe I should write off this year and leave the hard decisions for the next year. Procrastination is an easy escape.

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Mahler 1:3

I was at the SF symphony yesterday and they were playing Mahler. It was the first time I was listening to this particular symphony (his 1st). I ended up crying for the third movement. It was rather embarrassing, given that I had a beautiful woman to impress. She looked impressed anyway, so that is all right, I suppose. Sometimes I give myself too little credit.

MTT (our conductor here) is a lively maestro. He seems to like conducting this symphony in particular – he was livelier than usual.

Here is the piece:

God, to create something like this that can move people a hundred or so years later. Cue my existential angst.

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Ashley Madison

Today’s lunch discussion was about the hacking of Ashley Madison. Many people were amused. Some said that it was just karma. For me, there are separate aspects to it:

  1. Privacy – It doesn’t matter what was going on. The customers were promised privacy. The hacking destroyed that promise. [I am not happy with our inclination to trust the cloud, or to trust any large and integrated system with tons of personal data. Yes, the world is headed that way. Internet of things and big data are both fun. In theory, no provider wants to harm you personally and your data is safe. In theory, you know the risks you are running. In practice, there is always someone willing and able to hack, and to ruin thousands of lives just because they can. In practice, you never can quite foresee the amount of damage that can happen. Some matters are more irrevocable than credit card fraud.]
  2. Adultery (without the knowledge of the spouse) made up  huge portion of their customer-base, but that wasn’t all that their customers were interested in. I know a few couples who regularly ‘swing’ or exchange partners for variety. They are comfortable with their arrangement. They are, understandably, not comfortable with the rest of the world (vindictive ex-es, bosses, neighbours, kids, the list goes on) getting to see this information out in the open.
  3. There are professional and social consequences from an exposure like this. Personal matters should stay between the people concerned, and it shouldn’t spill over into other aspects of their lives, unless it is impairing their ability to be sane, safe and sensible in company. I feel sad if the devoted spouse was cheated upon, but it should never be a reason to drag that injustice into social or professional venues.
  4. Emotional consequences of infidelity are terrifying. It is easy to say that cheaters will cheat and that they deserve what they get, but I find that it is nothing so straightforward as that. Sometimes we are willing to let things be, for the greater good, or for selfish reasons, or because we believe it won’t happen again. Having the data out on the internet ruins that chance at reparations and relationship patches.
  5. Children. Think of the children. School is terrifying enough without adding in bullying over the fact that your parent cheated and that everyone has seen the information on the internet. Society is terrifying enough without being labelled as that child. Every action, every youthful folly judged with the parent’s behavior as baseline can drive even the most level-headed kid out of his/her mind.

There is a great deal of unhappiness that lingers for a very long time after learning of broken trust. Sometimes the love that is left is enough to get over the experience, but more often than not, only time and distance help.

Cheating is rarely personal. We need attention, we need to feel a connection, we need to feel understood, we need to feel attractive, we are full of insecurities, we are psychopathic and like to break those who are devoted to us – there are so many reasons why we could be tempted. Most of the reasons induce pity than anger. In most cases, we have already cheated (ourselves and those we promised trust to) long before an affair.

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How have I missed thee? (The Sibelius Chronicles)

I woke up sharp at six, to make sure that I got to the airport in time to receive a familiar fellow in Crimson. Sibelius came with his guitar and a copy of Monte Cristo. He hasn’t yet grown out of his school-pride phase and is decked out in crimson that actually looks good on him. Freckled and blue-eyed, he is all laughter when he sees me. I even let him get away with twirling me about. It has been a long time.

“Your shoulders are still the same,” he says. “The same as they were in February 2014. You look so tired. We should fix that.”

I grab his book and point towards the exit. It is time to deposit him safely in his flat at Palo Alto, and then call his mother to tell her that everything is all right.

Frayed out by the red-eye flight, long nights in grad-school, and amounts of coffee that worry even me, he is jittery and happy. He cooes over my car, having not seen it before.

“It looks better than in the pictures.”

“It is rather like me then,” I tell him.

“Can we drive across to Hayward, and then down through Fremont and then cross the Dumbarton?”

It has been so long and I am glad enough to see him again that I agree. He has only been here for a few minutes and he has already started the frenetic pace which I expect my life to have over the next few weeks. Sure enough, he takes out his phone and recites the itinerary he has planned for every weekend. He takes down little notes and makes changes as I remember engagements I can’t wriggle out of.

Then the CD player in the car starts up, and it is playing the new Marilyn Manson CD. He listens to Killing Strangers for a while before saying cautiously, “I don’t want to offend you, but it seems as if he’s dumbed down his lyrics a lot to appeal to the masses. He used to have more lyrics – Target Audience is a favourite.”

I had noticed that myself. I had been singing with the music a few days ago on my work commute and the repetition had made me scowl. It seems a sensible thing to do, if you want to sell music in today’s market. It is more sensible to sell something closer to what others are selling, than something drastically different. It doesn’t make me happy though. At least the music itself is very good. It is not just music, though. I have often teetered at the crossroads myself: should I write what I want to write? should I write what sells? Since it is not my profession, I can afford to write what I want. Still, if one day I made it my profession, I would have to think harder about the choice.

Sibelius cuts into my thoughts as if we were still discussing a Mahler performance on a cold Saturday night in Atlanta. He says something about liking the tone and layers of my current writing as opposed to the paid dregs I had been writing up two years ago around the same time. Then he says something that strikes a chord, “You’ll never write anything mass-market popular. You’ll write stuff that stays around in corners for curious readers to find and love. To those people it will make a difference.”

I suspect there is a streak of individuality and idealism that grad-school hasn’t stamped out of me yet. Maybe it will go away, one day. Maybe I will be move to a high-paying job where I am doing nothing I like, and still find nothing displeasing about my life. The idea of it repulses me now. I had  bought into the Silicon Valley rhetoric long before I had heard of it: make an impact, change lives for the better et al.

Sibelius asks me to sing along to the music. I refuse saying that I can’t sing. He comments that I can’t be worse than Bob Dylan. Well, comparing to Bob Dylan always makes you feel better about your voice.  So we sing along. Sibelius is as sharp as he always has been, and memorizes the lyrics easily. The repetition helps.

I had stocked the flat with his requests: boxed wine and doritos. This seems like sacrilege, having seen his parents’ wine collection. Where had he picked up such deplorable tastes?

“You told me to go to Grad-school,” he offers. I shut up. Right, the mistakes of my guidance.

He comments that I used to be a slower driver. I tell him that working for a car company has its consequences. I am not sure if I should blame the company, or the Italian team-mate.

There are three acoustic tracks on the CD. We stop singing and Sibelius comments that he is surprised that Manson’s voice is still intact after all the screaming of the 90s.

“I have great tickets for October,” I tell him. “Will you come?”

He says he will think about it. He loves his music in high-ceilinged concert halls, where the audience is silent and rapt while the conductor takes them through symphonies. I think I still have our opera-glasses from the last opera we attended in Atlanta. Cheap tickets mean that you need aids to see the show.

I am rambling. I should stop. I had thought, after the mess of the past many months, of the past five years even, that it would all be bleak for a very long time. I don’t make friends easily. I am difficult on others and more difficult on myself. I need to be cajoled to socialize and I am terrible at it anyway. I find it hard to talk about myself. I end up listening to others and hearing the tragedies of their lives because I listen very well – all that negativity gets me down each time I meet people. I am told that I am easy to confide in. I don’t want to be confided in, these days. I just want to get on with my life, to change very many things that I want changed, to forget a great many things that have happened to me, to undo  misjudgments and errors that led my mind and heart to places that didn’t suit them very well. It is good to have a chord of constancy to be rooted by, in this time of chrysalis. I don’t know what I’ll be at the end of this, but I know what I want to be. In a time of such uncertainty and shedding, it is good to have a familiar refrain that grew out of soil where had once grown peach trees, soil where was planted for me a Southern magnolia.

How glad I am that you stopped me on the steps leading to the symphony hall in 2012, after the most remarkable performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto that I have heard.

“Dinner at Don Giovanni’s?”

Right. I’ll even eat gnocchi today.

“I came in at the wrong side of summer,” Sibelius says. “It is nearly September.” He shuffles through my CDs and selects one. The first notes of the soulful Tapiola start.

No, the summer is just beginning.

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Aging, make-up, and learning to care

We had a photoshoot at our office, for the team. With increasing requests for interviews and photo-ops coming this way, the director decided to have the key players all photographed professionally. Two of my colleagues got theirs done first, and then it was my turn. I had watched with increasing worry as I saw the brushes and the props.

Then it was my turn. The make-up artist rubbed her hands in glee and said she so looked forward to this. Her enthusiasm didn’t help my flagging spirits much. I don’t photograph well at all, and I have an instinctive aversion towards make-up. I have had make-up done only once in my life, during my First Holy Communion, and it had been ironic that the nuns had applied cosmetics on our faces on a day that should have been celebrating our purity.

“Can we just do it normally?” I tried asking. She looked scandalized and shook her head firmly. My boss asked me to get it over with so that I could go back to work on things I was being paid for. So I surrendered myself into her eager hands. It was torture. I hate people touching me when I am not the one initiating it. She was kind, but I can’t help my nature, and I felt miserable at the end of the session, hating it all a great deal. Then there was the photography, and the whole business of being made to pose here and there made me feel used. A paying job is essentially about being used, but this wasn’t one of the ways I had agreed to be used by the company, was it? It wasn’t a big deal, and my colleagues enjoyed the experience – and promptly updated their social profiles with the dashing new photos. I have only myself to blame for my misery.

When it ended, I rushed to the bathroom to wash it off, only to find that the water smudged the cosmetics to the point where I looked like a KISS groupie. Heart-sick at that point with the whole experience, I called a friend in and she took pity, bringing me a make-up remover. How was I to have known that I required one? I could not get back to work after that, stressed out by the whole experience as I was. So I went home and spent a great deal of time in the bath, trying to make myself feel normal again.

The photos look good, I hear. I hope they are happy.

I tried to think about it later, to figure out why it affected me so much. It must be that they thought my looks needed to be improved, and I didn’t agree with it, because I was comfortable with myself and it didn’t feel right to get me changed to their version. I have never had the comeliest features, but I hadn’t cared. Most people care about being sexually attractive to their preferred gender and good looks matter there. I hadn’t needed to. I was rather fortunate that way. Throughout teenage, when my friends worried about looks, I had the peace of mind and better things to occupy my time with. It ended up with me growing into my skin long before most of my peers, and that was a good thing.  There were remarks always, from relatives, from concerned elders, about how I was too thin or not curvy enough, about how I was not half as beautiful as my mother had been at my age etc. It didn’t matter to me then, because I was very well-loved by a hyacinth and nothing else factored in to my self-esteem. Even now, I have little tolerance or know-how of mating games, and mostly find them all ridiculous.

“Your hair is all brown!” an acquaintance tells me. “What is happening? Aging? Wow!”

I try explaining that my hair does its own thing during harsh summers, going brown to varying shades. Then it returns to black during the colder months. She doesn’t believe me. I don’t blame her. This is a time when most of the people in my age group are learning to face age – a frown here, a wrinkle there, a gray hair here, skin losing softness there. I am beginning to see bathroom countertops at friends’ apartments fill up with numerous products all related to battling age.

I think I would care about it all more if I hadn’t seen the signs of aging on myself long ago. Before I had even finished under-grad, family members criticised that my hands looked old with the veins surging to the surface (too much writing and typing had made that happen, and I have only looked at that as a token of many hours well-spent). Frown-lines were common after fifteen. Understandable, given how stressful life had been back then. And my hair had decided to shift between brown and black, with the seasons, long before I had been made aware of it by relatives or family-friends.

—-

“You should have said no,” my friend was telling me, when I related the whole experience with the photography session and the toll it had taken on me.

I should have.

It is a part of a larger life-lesson, I think. Learning to say no in the moment is rather difficult for me, given how I grew up in a society where an outright no is not said at all. We hem and haw, and then later try to gently let people down. I am now living in a different place, and I know it should be fine to say no outright. I should, next time, if there is a next time. Learning to care is important, and learning to care for myself is where it should begin. To care about my discomfort more than caring about making someone else only arbitrarily related to my life pleased – that is a lesson in progress.

I went to a local hip-hop concert at one of the clubs in San Jose downtown. It was a very novel experience. I am too introverted to make this a regular event in my life, but it was interesting. I had gone to support a musician I had met recently. It was a relaxed atmosphere and people seemed to genuinely enjoy being there.

I am off to a Marilyn Manson concert in October! I can’t get the Cupid Carries a Gun track out of my head.

As my friend gently mops away the make-up with a cotton wad, she tells me that it is amusing I like Marilyn Manson when a bit of eye-liner sends me into near full-blown panic. She has a valid point. Then again, my fondness for shape-shifting, androgynous artists is based more on their shape-shifting, androgynous selves than on the props they use to make that happen.

—-

I have committed to a Make A Wish novel this year. It will be my Nanowrimo too. Two birds, one stone, etc. It is coming along well, and it is a relief to have the muse back from where-ever it had buggered off to in the last three-four years.

The first week was rough, since I wanted to write badly and was prevented by the ligament tear in my hand. It has been smoother after that. I feel grounded in myself in a way I haven’t in years, grounded by typing words rapidly, by stories unfolding in my head effortlessly. It is a scary place to be, I feel, because it reminds me every moment of how it was like to not have this.

The writing itself is coarse, like a foal learning to walk. No, that is the wrong analogy. This is like re-learning to walk, after a long time of being stuck bed-ridden. I shudder at the words when I re-read them. I was a better writer, before the long stint of lost motivation. It is getting better, I can see, as can my editor, and it is a relief to see it improve in bits and spurts. I can even console myself, without too much stretching of the truth, that it will eventually be what it was. I miss the sharpness and loveliness that leap out from earlier pieces. Still, re-learning is learning too, and I must possess myself in patience.

Life had not been bleak and there had been joy aplenty, but I had felt so empty, if that makes sense. Now, nothing is particularly on an even keel, and I suspect I shall never sail on an even keel through my life, but every morning when I wake up, I feel a sense of rightness, a sense of purpose, and I can’t wait to put words to paper. I think I might be rambling, but the tl;dr of it is that I am feeling myself for the first time in years, and it is rather frightening, because I am afraid to lose this again. There is nothing to be done about the fear component, except learning to live with it.

For now, I must stop this and rush back to my story. Apologies for the meandering.

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