far away and farther still | Tasmania

I liked Melbourne. And then I was on a train, and a lunatic driven by faith drove a car into a throng of people at Flinders Street. I was shaken, but managed to put it out of my mind, at least until I received a panicked call from across the Pacific after seeing the news. It is that time of the year, isn’t it? Maybe there are bonus multipliers on the number of virgins awarded during this season for defending faith in murderous ways.

Tasmania, on the next day, is a soothing faraway from all of that. The land rises from the ocean, hugging shores of white quartzite, cleaved apart by rivers many, and towering peaks and forests sprawling greet us on arrival. I am already in love, before having even stepped foot on that soil.

I have heard people speaking of Kashmir in reverent tones. I have heard them speak of the Himalayas, and even of the verdant land I come from. For me, though, this is it. This is the first time that I am so moved by soil and tree. My knowledge of geography and geology is nonexistent. For the first time in my life, I am curious to learn more about what made this land as it is. So I learn about Gondawana, about the plates, about the continental shelf deep, and I am in awe of time’s magic.

It is an up and down land, of rolling meadows and sharp cliffs falling sheer to the ocean, of placid harbors and wild winds buffeting gnarled old trees, of English countryside planted amidst native foliage. The devil is cute, and looks nothing like how I imagined it to be. Kangaroos and wallabies are curious and shy on the trails in Freycinet. I see pademelons too. The marsupials remind me of stray dogs back in my home town. I am confused when I see them all later, on a glossy menu, in a posh restaurant. Gorging myself on abalone and scallops, I look away from the kangaroo steak that the neighboring table is trying out.

There are flowers everywhere. The summer breeze is cloying and heavy, bearing the scent of roses and lavender. There is ivy crawling on the old houses. Hydrangea and daffodils peek over the white fences beside winding country roads. Weather turns at its whim, I go in search of surf, and get myself doused cold and wet for my troubles. Christmas fairs at night bring crowds and laughter. I walk around, and feel cosy and happy, removed from the world by water and rocks, far away and farther still.

Strangers are talkative. There is a sense of goodwill and camaraderie in the air, so typical of Christmas, and it makes me very happy. I sneak in and out of cafes, during the recurrent storms, and eat bites of Christmas pudding with black tea. I have resigned myself to many extra pounds from these indulgences.

A street photographer takes a photo of me at a bus-stand, at a Christmas fair, and lets me know afterwards. I am not okay with the invasiveness, but what is done is done, he apologizes prettily, and explains in earnest why he finds it important to capture unwitting subjects on the streets. His photograph has come out in an interesting way, in how it has managed to contrast skin and graffiti, broken concrete and bright Christmas colors of my cardigan, cigarette stubs and collarbones, capturing patience and alertness both. I accept his offer of coffee, chat with him, and he tells me about his voyeuristic hobby. I am not surprised when he admits that the mother of a little child he had taken a photo of had been less forgiving. It is an intrusive hobby, even if it isn’t illegal. The church bells chime out the hour, and I am running late for the bus. So I wish him a Merry Christmas and get away. It isn’t my first run with one of his ilk, trophy hunters looking for urban wildlife. I do prefer it when they ask beforehand.

I wonder, later, what it means when I write of others. It is an old discomfort, and a perpetual one. I try my best not to identify whom I write of, try to cloak the known with the unknown. It doesn’t come naturally, since I am an emotional, expressive creature. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary when others are involved; I have seen enough cases of bullying, harassment, borderline doxing, ranging from the light to the severe, to be wary of how I write of my life and those in it. I try to keep the core of my writing and music fairly separate from everything else in my life; they have been my bedrock when the rest was shaky, and it is simpler to keep that private now.

Separation, despite the best of my efforts, isn’t always practical. Donne wasn’t wrong, about islands and men. People wonder, and are curious. At times, you want people in your life to know you enough, but to still keep parts of you to yourself. Blogging streaks the border between the private and the shared, and I have found it a comfort when I feel the need to be known a bit, to those who venture over of their own volition. I care intensely when I care at all, and my words often bear that intensity and expressiveness. If I’d been given a dollar each time someone asked me to keep it light, I’d be richer thrice over. It is unpleasant to subject others to unasked for intensity in random conversations over beer or coffee and understandably most everyone barring a few find it tedious to deal with that, but it is less fraught when expressed in words on a webpage here.

Honey is my new-old craving. Tasmanian honey is delicious in its many forms. I have been eating hive crusts with bread and Kakadu preserves. It reminds me of a time long ago, of when I had been on the cusp of adolescence, when a woman had given us fresh crust from a smoked beehive. I had been wary to eat it, and I had been kissed then, and I cannot be blamed for developing a taste for the crust after that.

My neighbors at the accommodation are an elderly couple, traveling in Australia for three months. I have been shamelessly stealing their well-planned itinerary, having planned nothing myself, here as I am without an iota of deliberation and driven by pure impulse. They are here now, sweet and apologetic, asking me to please set up their wifi connection again for the umpteenth time. So I’ve got to go now. Maybe later, they’ll drag me out to the terrace for tea and pies and conversations as they did yesterday, after the rains retreat for the evening, once the bright summer sun warms the lawns outside once again, and the air turns heavy with the smell of rain-drenched soil and flowers abloom on the hills. I remind them of their grandkids, and they remind me of my grandparents. They have been well-meaning in their attempts to get me to wake up early. I have been trying my best to sort the ancient heating system of this house for them. It isn’t a Christmas with family, but it isn’t a Christmas without family either, far away on the edge of a world.

Stay safe, and be well. Happy Christmas!

Australia | this impulse of mine

I almost didn’t make it here. Tickets were a last minute scramble. The decision to come was also an impulsive one. The Friday I set out, I had gone through the wringer at work, ending many months of a murky situation, and was quite sure I’d miss the flight. Fifteen hours later, I found myself ridiculously overdressed as I stepped out of Sydney airport, into the hot, humid, cloudcast city.

I found Sydney an aspirational cousin of San Francisco, and I’d found San Francisco an aspirational cousin of New York. In Sydney there was dog yoga and suburbs sprawling, Google Pixel ads and a tech industry in difficult making, overseas money building up skyscrapers tall and public infrastructure crumbling. I made the tourist stops, to the harbor, to the beaches, to the opera house. The food didn’t quite stand out to me. Whatever I experienced there, I had experienced somewhere else. I loved the warm beaches and surfed, though I have to admit I was scared of sharks. I had to rent gear, and when I did that, the lady, noticing that I had a scarf, asked me if I needed a surf hijab. I said no, and explained that it was only to shield me from the sun. It was thoughtful of her. I was reminded of all the times in Dubai airport where they take it upon themselves to show me the prayer room. And of more than one nosy man in Mexico City who had asked me if I was from the Middle East. Maybe I should learn some Hindi.

The public transport system is easy to navigate. It brings back old sense memories. My left side has bruises once more, because of how I stand at an angle, my hip bone striking those metal bars on buses and trams.

People in Sydney are beautiful; reminds me of LA, of perfect tan and silicone to help along.

Melbourne was different. The river flows through the city. It reminds me of Sibelius rowing us down the Charles, and back to the Harvard pier. I am tempted to go down to the pier and row, but it is too hot, and I much prefer it when someone else does the hard work. So I settle for walking alongside. The arts scene is thriving. The city is well laid out and easy to get around. It is as green as Atlanta. Going up north, the high country reminds me of Thornbirds, of Drogheda.

People are warm and helpful. My neighbor on the train is a great mimic, as he walks me through the different Aussie accents. He tells me about the oddities of the Northern Territory. He loves Barangaroo. He has a guitar. I think this is the first country where I have seen so many people on buses and trains in swim wear holding guitars. It is a beach-beer-guitar country. When we disembark, I humor him and play a few chords of Black Dog. He declares it very good, but it is not America, and there are no spontaneous hugs. I hand the guitar back to him, decline his offer of showing me around the valley, decline his offer of taking me to lunch, and thank him quickly before taking off to explore. It is still early, and I can be horrible company at that time without a great deal of coffee and sunlight.

There are parks everywhere. Tea and scones, cricket and clotted cream. The colonial legacy holds strong, I suppose. The wine country, outside the city, in Yarra valley is beautiful. The coastline reminds me of the splendor of the California Highway 1. There are little concerts here and there.

There is a cafe, a Turkish one, with a single communal table. It faces the river. It is sunny and quiet. I spent hours there, watching people, writing, and let myself be pampered by the barista. It is a quiet day there, so she has time. She refills my coffee without charging, and engages me in conversation kind and witty, and I fall in love. I have very few charms, but baristas are susceptible to them. She tells me about her dreams. Then she laughs wryly and says they’ll be just dreams. She asks me what brings me to her corner of the world. I’ll never see her again, I think, and so I tell her many things. It is rather freeing. Her accent is twangy and reminds me of a cello. I tell her about music. I tell her about how I used to write, about how I write still. She tells me about how she’ll have to stay in the city for Christmas, about how she wishes she could go home to her family for the holiday. At five, her trading hours are done, and she cleans up and closes shop, and then she comes out to sit with me on the grass by the lake. She is religious. Outside there are evangelists yelling at the commuters running to and from the city business district about how we are all eligible to be saved by Jesus Christ on the last day of reckoning. I smile at that before I catch the faith in her eyes. I carefully refrain from commenting and change the subject to more mundane things. I show her the pirate scar from my eye surgery earlier this year. I try to sate her curiosity about Catholics in India. I tease her about her obsession with the British royal family and cricket. It must have been all the wine tasting I did earlier, but I was happy sitting there with her for hours, and felt young and hopeful again. She has not seen Priscilla, Queen of the desert before. So I tell her all about it, about cocks in frocks on rocks. I don’t think I have tried this much to impress and entertain anyone in a very long time. The last time was years ago, when I tried to impress Sibelius’s mother, and she had not been impressed and had just asked me to have some more iced tea. This time, when I leave my barista at the train station, she hugs me, and I am mellow and full of goodwill towards all mankind. It lasts until my itchy, achy sunburned ear-tips complain.


My friend took me to a beautiful Cirque de Soleil show as a birthday present. I was very moved by the experience. Now I am all high strung on hope and optimism, and I can feel alarm bells ringing in my head at this unusual state of affairs. I am even planning a wedding ceremony in September next year, for that friend who seems all prepped up to enact a runaway bride.

I met old friends in a cute, Indian restaurant before they left for their winter vacation. It was so lovely to see them, especially since I had been avoiding them for a long while, for no other reason than my own hesitance to bother anyone with my more difficult moods. I really dislike meeting people I like when something in my life is imbalanced. I think I fret too much about worrying them unnecessarily. It is an ingrained habit that I am trying to get rid of. They called me out on it, rightfully so, and I resolved not to do that again. We’ll see. It is all a work in progress, but I felt fortified after seeing them both, after seeing how they love each other and the family they have created together, and I have such beautiful memories of them letting me into their home and keeping me for a few months. I’m always grateful, for what they were to me then, for what they are now, just not very good at saying so, or keeping in touch. I’ve decided to be more conscious about all this. We’ll see how long my resolve lasts.


Where are you going to run to?

Various people have asked me that over the years. I ran away from a society I didn’t like, from family pressures I couldn’t deal with, from a love old that cut too deep.

My latest escape is down under, away from the detritus of two years of a job that was uncomfortable and difficult, for all that it paid well, as I coped near daily with the many paper cuts dealt by a man who knew he had power and didn’t hesitate to remind me of that. I did try fixing that, over and over again, until I gave up and looked to greener pastures. There is only so much Nina Simone and Mississippi Goddamn I can listen to before throwing my hands up in exasperation and moving on to a different lab. I managed to wait until a colleague I respected left on his vacation, having known that I’d find it hard to deal with the drama, and not wanting him to see how it would affect me. Also, he had been the one who had such conviction in reporting things that I had temporarily been swayed to consider that option, and I felt conflicted at how it only led to the usual set of consequences. It was a bit too dramatic for my tastes as it panned out. My old boss asked me to let go of any bitterness and to forgive the people involved. Coming from him of all people, I thought it was a bit weird, but what do I know? He has always been a rather unpredictable sort, and perhaps he was in a Christian mood that day. It’s hardly the worst well-meaning advice I have been plied with. I am not one for lofty concepts such as forgiveness; my way is that of Hobbit-like practicality, of making myself comfortable and safe, and I know I’ll be fine, after a few days, and I know I’ll like the changes – new faces and new challenges. Luckily for me, I love the field and love the technical problems I find here, and it makes up on most days for the random jerk encounters.

This looking forward business is alarming, but welcome. I’ve changed so over the few years past. I have to thank the friends I have for my support system now. It has been utterly unlike any other time in my life, in that I don’t feel I am fighting anything alone, and I feel ensconced in confidence thanks to their faith in me. It is hard in many ways. I am not used to relying on anyone else, having had to keep my own counsel for too long. Generally, I have tended to attract people who want me to need them, people who want to save me from whatever they think I am hiding from, and that dynamic never really ends well. The latest problem that caused me to quit this job was a similar case of that, of wanting me to be compliant and lashing out in many different ways when things didn’t go as he wished. Luckily I have good friends now, and a much better compass for where I want to be. I try more than I used to before, to ask actively for their opinions, to incorporate their feedback into how I make decisions, and it has been working out well for me. I cannot say that I am still the most forthcoming of people when it comes to my problems, since I consider most of them too mundane to trouble anyone with, but I am getting better at voicing my concerns in company I trust.

Just this week, as I made up my mind about resignation, I was discussing it with a friend. And I was talking about Australia, of how I wished I could go there. Her impulsiveness and constant spiel about following my gut stirred recklessness in me; so there I was, sweet-talking that poor airline rep to find me tickets at the last minute, and I was off two hours after I quit that job. It was altogether alarming and crazy, and I wouldn’t have managed it if my wiser, more practical friend hadn’t come by and made sure everything was sorted out and ready to go. I had been a nervous wreck. The job had taken its toll on me: skipped meals, lost sleep, a general state of nervousness and uncertainty that plagued me through my days and nights. On Friday, after I got back home, I was dizzy and fainted, exhausted by the ordeal. I was determined to get away from all of it for a while, so I plucked myself up with caffeine and set off down under. Kautilya, if he had heard of that story, would have called me sensitive, but then I’ve never really had that strength to carry on relentlessly, as some do. Perhaps it comes of not having faith. I didn’t take to religion, I didn’t take to country, and I didn’t take to family or love. I’ve too many whys to be faithful and relentless. So I’ve only been able usually to start over somewhere else, and refuse to ponder the past.

Sibelius called for Hanukkah. He is still plotting and scheming for that Bernie revival. I haven’t the heart to dash his hopes. His mum, though, will take a torch to them once she hears of this. She’s never been much anything than a grim realist.

I wrote Christmas cards. I haven’t yet posted them. I will, when I get back home.

Life isn’t a mainstream movie. There is no closure after three hours. The next chapter isn’t going to be happily ever after. There is a break in between, though, and I am quite grateful for that now.

I met an old colleague whom I respect a great deal, who was one of the best mentors I’ve had in work. There were others, at that same job. We have all drifted apart since, busy with our own lives and careers, but we keep tabs on each other, and it is good to know that they are there if something doesn’t work out, even if I have been so far masochistically resolute that I’ll never use a referral to land a job. He knows my ways, and I felt fortified after he told me bluntly that he’d hire me on the spot if I tired of doing things on my own. I am unlikely to take him up on that offer. I enjoy that thrill of finding new people and places, and proving myself all over again.

I have to head to family for New Year this time. That brings its own bundle of uncertainties and concerns. I am feeling at ease though, more than I have in the years past. I don’t feel that familiar sense of sadness and regret when I think about the hyacinth. The intensity of that past has faded into sepia soft, perhaps now eclipsed by all that has since taken place, and it feels like another person’s life now, familiar but not personal. It makes traveling there easier, much easier.

I did my existentialist month in November this time. So my December seems rather light now. I am more concerned with sleeping and eating well than indulging in my annual mulling over the mysteries of my existence. I imagine I’ll never fully sail with an even keel; I think I have written of that before. A month of evenness, of tempered calm, is really nice though.

Still awfully jetlagged and catching up on what seems to be months of lost sleep. My thoughts are too disjointed to lend themselves to coherency right now, but I have decided not to fuss over that. Writing is a pleasure when there is focus, but it is equally a pleasure when words just flow from streams of thought undirected. It is rather freeing, and I am not going to fret over the lack of conciseness or purpose. I’ve got koalas to pet and stuff.


This been the damn world

I was watching a snippet of Colbert’s late show, where the host is interviewing Billy Bush, of the Access Hollywood tape notoriety.

It seemed just yesterday that the tape was leaked, but it has been quite some time since then. We had Ellen Pao and Susan Fowler here. There were many celebrities and professionals in the entertainment industry coming forward after that.

And all I could think of, watching the interview today, was that Billy Bush still is bitter that he lost his job and Trump kept his, that he thinks he didn’t do anything that wrong even if he speaks the politically correct words expected of him, that he said it was back in 2005 and that he laughed along with the other men just because it was the norm of the time, and somehow that vibe of ‘I did the right thing for that time, and why I am being blamed for it now that the times have changed?’ got through to the host and the audience as well. It made for uncomfortable watching, certainly.

I hear the same in discussions informal and formal, online and offline. [Why are we looking at tech? Other industries have the same problems! Women don’t come in because they don’t want to do the hard work. It is not a discrimination problem, it is a supply problem.]

The problem is multivariate. Solutions are not easy. However, the first step is acceptance. The first step should not be about ”understanding what a woman faces’, or doing exercises to ‘put yourself in her shoes’, or going through endless sensitivity training videos on the corporate website. It is accepting that the problem of harassment and discrimination exists.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to even get to that point with most of my male colleagues. I have only male colleagues, and have had only male colleagues for the entirety of my career. So how they react to this hits home for me.

Any mention of harassment brings up defensive reactions, disclaimers that they knew nothing of it, that they saw nothing of it, that nobody meant anything ‘really serious’. Variations exist on those themes.

  • It is not the companies I’ve worked at. I am sorry you faced this here. I want to assure you that it’s not the norm!
  • It’s not the people I know. You are dealing with an odd man out.
  • It’s never been the industry’s way. You are dealing with an odd company.
  • It’s only because they are boys entering the field without professional coaching. They get better with time. Don’t take it personally.

When you are the only woman in a setting, when sexually inappropriate comments are made inside the workplace with knowing, coy looks, it’s hard not to take it personally.

It is not unusual that we don’t often hear these stories. There are very few women in the field. There are very few women as you move up the ranks, and they keep changing companies until they switch career tracks or find a nice, dead-end, cosy position. Many of them are on a visa, or in various stages of establishing permanent residency, tied to their employer for that duration. They risk their job, their ability to stay in the country, when they complain. It is easy to find a new job, of course, in today’s market, but you risk being labelled as the poisoner of the well, and if you have a visa at stake, you risk a lot more.

Why didn’t you say anything about it? Why didn’t you take it to the right channels? Why didn’t you persist in reporting higher and higher up when your management chain concealed the reports? If you don’t do something, what if this happens to someone else here? The questions are not without value. Yet, I wonder, in this field of incredibly intelligent men that I work in, why would they need it explained to them many times over? Maybe one day, they too, like Billy Bush, will say it was only the norm at that time, that they introspected and reflected and found out that their behavior wasn’t okay, and that they are changed now. Maybe, though, there will be a false accusation soon, and everybody will go back to their lives, convenient as it is to think every woman who came forward was just an embittered, unsuccessful-in-life snowflake who made it up in her head, that no such thing would ever happen in real life, in your life or my life.

Then there’s the perception effect. You are a woman working in a group of men. You smiled and had coffee or took a walk about the campus with this man. So that must mean that in some way you provoked someone else to act inappropriately towards you. Unless you are the perfect victim, the archetype of Virgin Mary, Mother of God, why would I believe anything you say? Why would I believe that you didn’t have it coming?

So complaining about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace only becomes feasible if you have an incredible support system, a perfect victim profile, a financial safety net, a new job or set of jobs waiting, and acceptance that you will lose friendships with male colleagues in the field as well as get blacklisted in the network effects that happen in a closed and small world as this, and a tremendous amount of courage to deal with the aftershocks, everyday, for a long time to come. So we pretend that leaving was our choice, and move on to the next place quietly.

When any attempt to raise the issue up the chain of command ends up with you getting basically demoted, shifted around to work in dead-end projects, out of sight and out of mind, it is incredibly hard to believe that you are dealing with an odd  man out, that it is just boys entering the field a tad rough about the edges, that the industry is as pure as they claim it is.

I stumbled into a few colleagues at lunch today.

“Oh, how is your new role going on?”

I made my polite replies. Then they said, “You look happy! You must be so happy to be now working in foo_bar.”

I wondered what the appropriate response would be. At least one of them knew the exact reasons as to why I had been ‘voluntarily’ reassigned. Many of the others knew that something had gone wrong, but had made no effort over the weeks to understand what exactly transpired (not that I consider that an egregious sin). And the person who knew stood there, with the others, smiling politely at me as if he had no idea about any of it.

It didn’t matter then. So I just carried on with my day.

“Think about how lucky you are! At least you get paid a lot.”

I entered this field because I was interested, many years ago. I stayed all these years because I was interested. The money came later, once that robotics hype exploded recently. And even if I came and stayed for the money, I signed up to be paid for SLAM, not to service the unfettered needs of male colleagues that they’ll get away with for the foreseeable future.

“What will you do?”

I have come around to thinking that we have all our places to stand. Mine, for now, is a place of observation. Action, if there must be action, can only come later in my life, when I have built enough courage, when I have built enough of a support system outside this industry, when I have options and opportunities outside this industry to retreat to without worrying about livelihoods and immigration.

Action, if it one day comes, cannot be mine alone. When the ratios I work in, have worked in (~40:1, usually give or take), are what they are, it means my male colleagues need to be aware of how they talk, of how they touch, of how they take my compliance in overlooking their violations of professional boundaries for granted, it means that my male colleagues need to accept that regardless of how serious they think they were (‘just kidding around!’), there are serious consequences for me (potential loss of work, a change of job).  It is hard, I understand; I found it hard to accept that I am usually spoken over at meetings, that I am taken less seriously at technical discussions etc. I have found my way to address these issues, but it is a trial-and-error, what-works-for-me solution. The hardest part, though, was not finding the solution. It was accepting that this was my reality and that it was entirely up to me to solve it if I wanted to stay in the industry.

I was uncertain about posting this. I generally prefer to keep matters more abstract when writing here, especially if they are close to my heart. Today, though, I was thinking that my exit from this industry was more likely to happen in an ugly manner from these thousands of paper-cuts than by a clean, single-stroke of irresistible force. So it felt right to write here, of this, today.

I am not normally one for SNL, but I saw they did this piece earlier this month:


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.

but my tongue is only numb


There’s no need to be Simon Bolivar, he tells me. I wonder, as I often do, how much of it is corporate shill and how much is his own ego. There is plenty of both to contend with in the jungle that is his mind. He is an interesting man, and provides plenty of caricature-worthy material on any day. Today, though, I am too tired to see the silver lining that he can be, the muse to my pen. Not all characters need walk like sweet beauty in the silent moonlight. Some of them can be haphazardly brilliant and bleak and broken and full of bravado, and the muses can dance to those tunes too.   I assure him that I am not Bolivar. I straddle that line between caution and truth as I often do, unwilling to lie about my motivations to stay and unwilling to be upfront about my dislike for the situation.

“Is this about sexism?” is often the question he likes to ask me, sounding all world-wise and understanding. I wonder what he has seen to look so wise, to know my plight, to see it as it is perhaps only possible to be seen from this side of the gap, and I wonder if he is truly that magnificent at putting on an act. I assure him it isn’t about sexism. It is only about professionalism. I am not a social reformer. I am only interested in decency, and a code of conduct, and less blurred boundaries.


I manage to choke down my pride and self-reliance, and go asking one of my old colleagues last week. It is perhaps good that I did so. I receive help, practical and constructive, and I am left with room to breathe, plans to make, hope to start organizing my topsy-turvy life around.

“You look so much older,” my ex-colleague says, not without pity and a measure of sympathy. I let him ply me with coffee and concern.

I want to see if I can get it held accountable. He rolls his eyes and chastises me. Cut your losses fast. Move on. We have both been here long enough to know that is the easiest path ahead.

It’s going to happen again. And again. Until I have sufficient leverage to stop it happening to me. Then it’s just going to happen to someone else.

It is too overwhelming. I hate crying outside. I feel tired and cross, and left with no resolution.

“Don’t be like that. You have weathered it before,” he says sharply. “And you weren’t alone then. You aren’t now. Is it news to you that most of us would rather be on the right side of this kind of stuff? It’s ugly and we don’t want it to happen to anyone.”

It’s ugly. We agree. It’s just that we also would rather not see it, would rather choose to ignore it happening. Why not worry about third world atrocities? Why not worry about child brides and gangwars and women who can’t drive? Why would I consider what’s happening right before me, everyday, when I have a plethora of causes none of which will directly affect my comfortable reality, my bubble of denial, anyway? It’s not a culture problem. It’s just a numbers problem. It starts early, in the pipeline, and we just need to encourage Barbie legos.

I focus on my coffee. I think of all that I have done to be here now, of perseverance and long, lonely campaigns, and in the end, this is too trivial to be bothered by now. I am here. That is good enough.

Sappho is quite vivid in her prose. My tongue is shattered, she writes in florid, feeling Greek. She wouldn’t last here a day; her bright and brilliant flame would be extinguished on arrival. Catullus leavens it softer, and explains that it is only another poet whose tongue has gone numb. So I switch the Greek for the Latin, old ideals for mundane and muted reality. Muted is good. After all, if you felt everything all at once today, you’d have nothing left to feel tomorrow.

(lingua set torpet)


a latter day’s saint

I was in Zion this weekend.

I wondered, as I stood before the Towers of the Virgin, by the rushing waters, what the settlers from Salt Lake had thought of when moving here. Had they been living on the word alone, or had they been able to find sustenance in the canyon’s maw? It must not have been a place for those light of heart, or for those light of faith.  How many, I wondered, as I often do when I come across those who believe, even know of the name? Zion is religious. It sounds vaguely Old Testament to most Christians here. I haven’t met many who could immediately recognize it for the original city on a hill. They know perhaps of David, because of his duel with Goliath, because of his affair and God’s punishment. Do they know the rest? Do they know of Jonathan? Do they know of poor Saul? Do they know of Samuel who anointed them both Kings? It doesn’t matter.  Faith requires little knowledge of old fables. It only requires looking up at the skies. Perhaps that is why Brigham Young led them to Utah, because who would be quick to doubt the existence of the divine when looking at the beauty above, the beauty around, that man even today has not been able to settle outside a tiny corridor by the mountains? I was lucky to see the beauty of the reds, the yellows, and the ochres in the bright sunlight. I was lucky to see the gardens hanging lush and hidden beneath the canyon walls. I don’t know if I should count myself lucky for the thunderstorm and the flash flood. The scenic drive back was full of wonders. I wished that I had a driving partner, so that I could have drunken in the sights better. Instead, I had a cute, little rental car. It groaned when pedaled, it screeched when gently guided to turn, it hiccuped when merging into traffic, it ran downhill gleeful, and it croaked and puffed when driving up, and I wondered why they still make such cars. Then we were on the plains, arid and open, and the crosswinds buffeted us so, and the little car jittered and puttered, and I was quite concerned about a thunderstorm for the first time in my life. I put on Metallica, and hoped that the car would pick up on the fiery music to deliver a performance better than it had so far. And I contemplated religion for a few minutes as the winds pressed down on us. I saw finally why Ahab had his priest to kill a whale. It was never about the whale. It was about the boat.

Vegas was interesting. It was my first time there. I cannot see myself returning. I met an old friend who was also visiting the city. We were thrown out of the fine restaurant he wanted to dine at, because I was so many shades of red and yellow from my hikes in Zion. So we ate at McDonald’s that night. The next day, we dined well and fine, at a different place, and the food was yummy and cheap. He was busy on the Strip. I wandered around, and found a wonderful cafe in a desolate part of the town, where they played music I hadn’t heard before. Native American hip-hop? People were poor and jaded, and spoke wistfully about the California oranges. I listened to them, and then when I had heard enough to break my carefully constructed bubble of unreality, I hurried back to the tourists, and took a deep breath, and went off to write. It is hard sometimes, as the words ravage me when I write, and I rarely write of anything I haven’t felt and seen, and I feel all of it all over again, intensely, and it is hard to stay grounded. I am only a conduit for stories, just as the canyon was only a conduit for the river, which wound about as it pleased, as it pleases.

As we parted at the airport, my friend asked me how long I plan to keep running. I laugh off his concern and tell him I have been managing to do that very well all my life.

It feels so long ago, when I had actually stood my ground, when I had known my purpose and believed in it. Faith had once been there. Now, my writing flows still, but I cannot find the courage to go where it goes. I instead occupy myself with petty concerns, smile and pretend that everything has a reason, and that everyone is rational and only misunderstood, and fake that I belong in a place where I will never belong to, and I lie awake at nights wondering where the crossroads had been.  After my early teenage years, after some negative experiences, I have always disliked speaking about writing, or sharing it, especially when it is published, because  I have strived so hard to keep my worlds apart, to keep my livelihood away from my life, to keep the petty from polluting the pristine, to keep the only sacred part of myself from anyone who would not value the gift of sharing enough. That decision has had its positive and negative consequences, and I don’t regret it yet. Going to Zion, though, has once again painted possibilities vast across my mindscape, and I see so much to look forward to in my life. If mere men could willingly go there and live on faith alone, I hardly see why I should balk at my faith’s call, to write, to write often, and to write as much as I need to.

These are High Holy Days. Sibelius doesn’t seem to be in a mood to mark them this year. Last year had been different. Even faith runs dry, or takes a break, or takes the belly of a whale to reawaken. Closer still, a Kafka grumps about, and no amount of puffing gives peace. There are health concerns in the family. Work is a mess. Even despite all of that, thanks to rock and river and gorge and a latter day’s saint, I am, for once in my life, looking at where I want to be, instead of where I have been.

strangers in the bright light

Today is the autumn equinox. Days draw shorter from here, and soon it will be Christmas. We are entering October, and now we are nearly done with 2017. I have a fondness for the last three months of the year. October is the last month to get any work done, and the first month to start planning for the next year. November is full of birthdays, of family and of friends. December is for travel and holidays, for family dinners and for plum-cakes, for quietly winding down and resting before starting it all over again.

My 2017 has been topsy-turvy. It hasn’t been as rough as the years before, thankfully. On the other hand, it hasn’t been a year of progress as well. It has been stagnant and mellow in its better months, and rough in the worst. I wonder what it is like to have progress, sometimes. I can see progress in myself, in the person I am, in the person I am becoming from all my meanderings and choices. I cannot see that progress yet directly in my circumstances. Will and work haven’t yet sufficed to bring about the people and circumstances I want into my periphery. There are some difficult issues causing stress, mostly related to immigration.

I am trying to sort out what to do about dysfunction at the workplace. In this industry, sexism runs rampant and unchecked often, and it exists in forms both subtle and overt. I try usually my best to keep my peace and to ignore all markers, so as not to endanger my livelihood or sanity. So when we are at lunch in the office cafeteria, and when a teammate talks crudely about spunk being a term for sperm, I pick at my sushi and stay quiet. So when my boss lies about something and I call him out on it, I get to be labelled emotional, and I have to just ignore that as well. I have to close my eyes and ignore every   lewd and inappropriate comment that comes my way from coworkers who likely have been getting away with this sort of thing for way too long. Every time I bring this up anywhere, I get told to dress like one of them (wear jeans), to talk like one of them (swear a lot, be loud, be aggressive, be confident even when you don’t have enough reasons to be confident), and to just be one of them (play ball, love beer). The standards are different sometimes; if I have a job, it is because I am female and not because I am qualified, and my failure to be pretty is as awful as my failure to perform as expected in my job. It is not just my current workplace. It has been the case, to varying degrees, at every single place I have worked at. In careful and studied ignorance I have found salvation usually. That was the easiest path. I could never be one of them without overwriting near every trait of my personality and self. It was easier to ignore all of that, and suffer quietly when required. However, now I am thinking about my future. Is this industry worth it for me for the amount of sacrifice I need to make on a daily basis? Already, my normals have been shifted for what I consider as acceptable behavior. Should I risk needing a therapist for the rest of my life to be here? What is it that I receive in fulfillment or wealth in this industry that I cannot obtain in some other form of employment? I would rather work with more well-adjusted colleagues for less pay. Robotics is heavily male-dominated, much more so than even software engineering. Perhaps a change in direction is called for. I am thinking about all of this as I close the year. The workplace affects more than just the work. I have been affected by this, slowly over the years, and it has impacted decisions I have made about where I live, who I date, and what kind of friends I make. The Bay Area, and even San Francisco, are not the easiest places to find people who aren’t in this software industry or services catering to this industry. I want to meet people who are out of this altogether, as I used to on the East Coast. I miss the spark and wit of diverse conversations I had with people I knew from Emory, from Harvard, from Yale, none of whom were in tech. I wonder where I have to go to meet such minds here. I want to look at life as it is, to discuss the past, to discuss the what-ifs, without constantly being on the lookout for problems to solve, for inefficiencies to disrupt. Most of what we tell ourselves about our work here is make-believe, and we have gotten very good at making ourselves believe. And sometimes, I find it necessary to completely step outside this place, away from these people, to see what reality can be, to see what interactions based on more than a shared faith in self-important make-believe can be. There is lingering sadness in me still, as I think about all of this, about what I expected to have here, to build here, and about what has happened to me or around me to people I have cared for in the years I have been here. There are no easy ‘fixes’ to the systemic issues at play here. My concern, now, must be my life, and to find out how to take it forward, to healthier places. I visited a few cities to see what the living conditions are, to see what my daily level of interactions would be like if I stepped out on the streets, out to the parks or the beaches. I am still mulling things over.

There is a saying in my mother tongue. The gist of it is that someone who is desperate enough, or brave enough, has only the sky above and the earth below, and nothing else to worry about or to consider in their plans. Desperation and bravery are different feelings that lead often to the same results. Both bring about a lack of fear, and reduced risk-aversion. I have noticed that in my life. It is only when matters had become terribly desperate, or when I had been extremely brave to take risks the circumstances changed drastically enough to cause a huge differential in the before and the after.

I learned to do new things this year. Scuba-diving is my favorite water thing now. I learned it in Puerto Rico. I am very sad to see the storms ravaging their beautiful land this week. The people there seemed genuinely warm and kind, and they were courteous and helpful to me as I traveled through the island. I tried kayaking as well later this year, near LA. Around the Channel Islands, you can kayak through the sea-caves, and the sunlight on the water and the mineral-deposits on the rock surfaces are beautiful.

I heard from an old, dear friend. His wife and him had offered me shelter and safety in that eventful summer of 2012, a lifetime ago. They have a lovely boy now. I like thinking of them as KNN, stringing their initials, and that algorithm is one of my favorite algorithms to explain to kids. That algorithm is my sermon to explain that most basic concepts aren’t hard unless you strive to make them hard, unless you strive to make them sound complicated.


but this rose is an extra

I went for lunch with a friend at the main campus. It was sunny and there were many taking selfies near the entrance sign-post. I wondered if they would be back to take new selfies when the other campus opens.

Elektra was a pleasant treat. That opera house is remarkably up and down in its productions. I was glad that this adaptation of Elektra turned out well. Everything was tight, the performers gave their heart and soul to the evening, and I was glad to be among the audience that cheered them on with gratitude and appreciation for a job well done.

Vancouver was warm and lovely. It had more Asians than even this place where I have been dwelling for the last few years. I liked the city, with its mountains and beaches, and cafes and parks.

My new tutor requests painted nails. It is easier for her to notice the fingers, to correct their movements. I like her. I am learning new techniques well under her tutelage. So I comply. I haven’t done this voluntarily in a long while, at least not since my teenage years when I had been besotted with colours and my mother had bought me many to try out.  My favorites back then had been the greens and the blacks.

My credit card company decided to block me from refueling a few miles south. I called them, and we danced the old dance, before they were convinced it was truly their client using the card for a legitimate purpose. I wondered how many times I have had to call them. I must be masochistic. I think I am still remembering old deeds, back when they had graciously suspended interest and offered me a mini-loan, back when I had no job, no prospects, and had been utterly broke in grad-school. I hadn’t even thought to ask them for a period of grace. I had only wanted to close the account and settle the balances, so that there would be no harm done if I had to leave the country once my visa expired. The lady on the phone had been warm, she had said bless you in her lovely, southern accent, and she had wished me the best of luck, and asked me to stay optimistic. I don’t know how she managed to convince her superiors to take a chance on me, or why.  It was all long ago, and yet, not that long ago. I remembered then, as I did today, Sherlock Holmes’s soliloquy on the rose, that rose which was an extra.

I received a bouquet today from an old reader. It was a beautiful surprise. The vibrant orange-yellow-violet profusions make for a spectacle on my dining table. It has given me sufficient morale to contemplate the week ahead.


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