Thanksgiving | hola

We did an early thanksgiving at Catskills this year. Then I was off to Mexico, for a two week vacation.

I had dutifully learned the rudiments of conversational Spanish, I had prepared loose itineraries, I had even tried to unify my travel documents to bear the same name and date of birth (what novelty!). I had packed beach clothes and warm clothes. I have a travel umbrella in my luggage always, and I looked at it when packing. I have been carrying it around in vain for a while, but I hoped Mexico might have rainy days, and I took my umbrella along. What is a proper vacation without rain? I did not want to take my laptop with me, but last minute havoc made that impossible. I loaded up books on my kindle, packed stationary and music, and was all set.

Mexico City (CDMX) was loud and big, full of people rushing about from work to revelry. The day I arrived, there was a free concert in the zocalo, and the roads were all barricaded off, and riot police stood about at every street corner, alternating between routing vehicles to different roads and drinking cokes. I was dropped off by my cab a few blocks away from my hotel. So I had the pleasure of dragging my luggage across cobbled streets, and every riot police officer asked me where my boyfriend was. I should have heeded the warning sings, because I was tired and jet lagged. I began to see the pattern once the concierge at the hotel, the waiter at the restaurant, the bartender, the security guard in the lobby all repeated the same question. They sincerely seemed to think it their solemn duty to fix this deplorable situation.  The concierge in particular was exceedingly and uncomfortably helpful, and attempted valiantly and continuously to set me up with so many locals and guests, in a rather frighteningly casual manner. This prepared me for the rest of my trip. And I needed the preparation; taxi drivers, men on the street, men at the restaurants, men inside a church during the vespers – they flirted, they asked nosy questions, they bought me coffees and helados and offered to take me dancing. I had intense culture shock. I am used to nobody making eye-contact, to everyone carrying about with their own business, to sacrosanct cultural norms of privacy. I tried my best to get used to these new ways, saw the city and its sights, and ventured out to climb the Aztec pyramids and further away to Puebla and Cholhulla. There were museums and the quaint oasis of Coyoacan. There were floats on a lazy afternoon, and there was the incredibly tacky lucha Libre wrestling matches. I fell in love with ant eggs and mezcal. CDMX was so taken with me that I never paid for a single mezcal. I came away confused and happy.

Then I was off to the Mayan riviera, where tourists and English were trending more. Flights were delayed and canceled, and it was past midnight when we arrived. I ended up with a stick shift car, and drove it about a bit before heading back the next morning, and getting an automatic transmission. That saved my hands quite some work in the days that followed.

I attended my first Spanish mass at Merida. It was an ideal locale for rediscovering religion. Knowing my catechism helped connect with the pious locals a great deal. They were kind to me, offering me parking for the nights I was there. For many of them, I was the first person from my motherland that they had met. They were endlessly curious and nosy.  From Merida, I went to Uxmal and Izamal, to Chichen Itza and Ek Balam. I ate fermented corn fungus and drank Chaya juice.

On my way back from Chichen Itza, a man by the roadside near a toll booth opened the placket of his trousers and leered at me, while fondling his cock. I looked away, and wondered what my life had come to that I consider this too commonplace to be bothered by anymore. I have seen this happen on public transportation back in my motherland, I have seen this happen on the roads, and recently, over the past few years, I have seen various versions of this in workplace settings. The last is the worst, because I cannot just look away and get on with my life. It is tempting to generalize, to paint broad strokes of stereotypes, but I strive to remember, always, that many of my closest friends, that many I respect, that many I love, are all men.

After pyramids galore, I put on my tourist headdress and headed to Cancun. There were beaches and cenotes and crowds everywhere. Playa del Carmen was quieter, but no less crowded. Further down, Akumal and Tulum were full of cults and 101 ways to find yourself. Life coaches sought the unwary and the weak at cafes and at bars, on the main drag and at the beaches. I had my fill of mainland beaches, and headed off to the island of Cozumel. It was beautiful, and I enjoyed surfing and snorkeling there.

It did not rain a drop and I brought my umbrella back unused.


canticum solaris | ainola (The Sibelius Chronicles)

It is good to be in New York. I haven’t been here this year.

It is cold and Sibelius’s idea of fuzzy socks isn’t sans merit.

Friends did a cosy dinner for me in Brooklyn. By common accord, there are no halves, better or worse. It had become trickier, over the years, as some of them went through relationships faster than I go through chocolates. Italian food; I haven’t had that in a long while. We are immersed in our stories, barely looking up at the surround, until the candles on our table have fluttered out, until we notice that the restaurant is empty but for us, and all the tables around us have neatly stacked chairs upon them.

Later,  there is a renewal of an old tradition of ours. The Russian tea room and a performance at Carnegie Hall. There is Saint Saens and Brahms, Puccini too, and what is a November for us without Ainola? I feel old and young all at once, as I remember all that this repertoire of music has meant for me, over the years. There is regret, deep, and there is also gratitude.

An old lab colleague asks me if this means a transition again. I wonder how he picked up on that. He tells me that I up and off to New York whenever I am making a change, in work, in relationships, in living situations. I realize that is true. There are so few who have seen me over the past seven years, seen my life’s changes and joys in close proximity, and whenever I am forced into something else, or choose it of my own will, I find it necessary to rush east to gather myself once more.

From our cosy vantage point up in the Jacobs Room, the streets are full of tiny humans scurrying around, the lights are bright in the Christmas displays of the storefronts, and the night sky is clear for once.

I have been alone over the years, even when I have shared living space and life with others. Perhaps a part of it is legacy from childhood itself. Perhaps a part is self-inflicted. I thought once I’d grow out of it, as teenagers do. I was unhappy to find out that I hadn’t. Then I stopped thinking of it. I tried making space for others, tried bringing them into my life, and I failed each time. It is rarely a single factor and the past doesn’t matter now. Nevertheless, nowhere, in no other place, have I felt relieved as in New York, where all the lonely, busy souls go about their lives with determination. In San Francisco, I feel the pressure to date, and I date, and each interaction leaves me more and more annoyed by the sheer presumption of men who want me for a trophy wife who can also earn a lot. I wonder if they ever think what they bring to my life. I suppose they’ve never had to do that before; their job is sufficient to gloss over the rest of it most of the time, I am told. San Francisco is ideal for Dorian Gray. Over and over, I see this pattern in my acquaintances here. When your self-obsession and need for absolutism (you can either have me exactly as I am or I don’t care, you can be either exactly as I want or I’ll find someone else) outweigh bonds of relationships and friendships, little wonder that it is not the most fertile setup for long lasting bonds with others. How do I accept myself as good without having to confront any of my weaknesses? How do I attain peace? How can I feel good despite all the mess-ups of my life? There are so many paths to denial, ranging from cheap to costly, from drugs to medical prescriptions, from cults to bastardized flavors of stoicism. There is nothing wrong with that prioritization. I am sure that this is necessary for several pursuits. Nevertheless, I am interested in the fullness of the human condition, and this is a very difficult place to be living in for that experience.

Long ago, on another walk, on another bridge, my lab-mate had given me tea and sympathy, and told me that perhaps it was time to let someone else try to make it work, instead of taking it upon myself. Let them do their share, he said, mincing no words. I had laughed then, finding it silly that he would tell me so, knowing the long string of failed relationships that haunted him, each in its own way caused by his unwillingness to do his share of work. Now we are together again, and he’s given me his gloves again to ward off the cold, and we talk about broken clocks. I confess, finally, after nearly five years, that he was right; that I cannot force myself to be less than I am just to make another person feel they are more, even if more and less are terms that should never enter the dynamics of interpersonal connections.

I have a performance during Thanksgiving weekend. I am so intensely unhappy that I’ll have nobody to cheer me on in that crowd. I wonder why it matters now. It should have ceased mattering a long time ago. He reminds me that I have plenty of friends in San Francisco, who would be happy to come and see me. That is not what I want. I have held some parts of me so close for so long, clung to the rightness of that so intensely, and no friend or family can substitute for the person I want in that crowd; a partner, a muse for my pen, chords for my songs, someone who is strong-willed and confident enough not to feel eclipsed by me.

I had a bunch of interviews last month. I could not care less about the outcomes, having had my mind made up about leaving San Francisco for somewhere more human. I did very well, as a consequence. It is one of those contrary things; you get what you don’t want.

This year has been strange. It is all about robotics now. I remember the times when HR used to just throw our resumes on the don’t-care piles. We were only good enough for DARPA research. Now all the software engineering students I knew from back then want to do their nano degrees in deep learning and self-driving. They want a piece of this bubble we are in. I am not sure what to think of this anymore. Perhaps it should feel gratifying, to know that all those myopic graduates who just cared about their Software development roles at the tech companies are now seeing the worth of our pursuits. It doesn’t feel gratifying. It just feels weird. Our little alcoves of research and little money are now attracting talent from all over, and that is wonderful. On the other hand, the culture seems to be deteriorating, as often happens when there is an influx of people who follow just the money, the power and the headlines. Hopefully, it will stabilize soon. The nicest outcome of this sudden funding boom has been the fact that many students are now interested in pursuing robotics education. I am so happy whenever I hear from one of them on social media or via emails. They are genuinely interested in the research topics, in bridging the gaps in their education so as to qualify for the grad programs etc.

Sibelius takes me to a quaint shop tucked away next to a Subway. Books from estate sales. We spend hours there, chatting with the owners, and help them air out their rugs. It feels like being back in Atlanta, escaping classes and running off to the little church down in Druid Hills. We had tiramisu instead of birthday cake. We were sober enough to enjoy it. So I suppose at least one thing has changed.

I haven’t made Christmas plans yet. I think I will face that after Thanksgiving.

I think I will move to Toronto, in the spring, if life continues as bleakly as it has been so far in San Francisco. At least I’ll be closer to New York.

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