shape of water | avalanche

I went to see The Shape of Water today. I had been wanting to see it for a while, ever since I saw the trailer last month. The film was everything I expected and more; I wasn’t disappointed at all. It was a full theater, and we gasped and sighed together as a single entity, as they spoke of longing and love and loss, and everything was beautiful and bleak. It reminded me of Amelie at times. When I was returning to the underground structure where I’d parked, I had been walking at a brisk pace, and a lady walking ahead of me was startled enough by the sound of my footsteps to turn around and look at me frightened. Oh, that this first world we live in still requires us to be as wary as deer come to water at a lake, touting our pepper spray and begging men to accompany us to view rentals and ferry us around after dark, lest we be carried away by evil terrible.

Star Wars managed to do worse than the low expectations I had for it. It had nothing that resembled vaguely a plot. It had moments of choreography that stood out amidst awful dialogues, little to no progression, and extremely poor and wooden acting, perhaps except the villain who did manage to bring a touch of flesh and blood into his performance. I have to say that I see these movies, various sci-fi franchise movies, and the superhero ones only to stay in loop with my colleagues who enjoy them. I feel excluded enough without knowing all this to nod along sagely at lunch conversations. Now that I have seen Star Wars, I have enough membership credit in those groups to manage along for a few months. It isn’t all darkness and misery. Wonderwoman pleasantly surprised me. They talk about white-knights and social justice warrior plots that have plagued the recent years’ movies. The suffragette movement had once been called disruptive and threatening to the fabric of civilization. Critical thinking isn’t our forte now. Whatever plagues Star Wars isn’t social justice warrior pandering, but an utter and complete lack of continuity and coherence in plot. And what worked for Wonder Woman isn’t that it catered to a specific crowd, but that it had a decent story told well and acted out passionately by its cast.

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Yesterday, I had a call from an old friend. She was one of my first friends when I came to this country, to attend grad-school. She had been three years older than me, and had been doing a Masters in Computer Science. She had been married. It had been an arranged marriage. She had taken me under her wing, taught me to cook a bit, taught me the ways of this new world, and I had delighted in speaking with her in a language other than English when all around me had been changed from all that I had once known. Her brilliance impressed me, when we worked together. She is one of the best programmers I have worked with. I looked up to her then. I had wanted what she had, to be accomplished, to be married to someone who spoke the same language and had been from the same social-economic-educational background. She graduated, went on to work for a large company in Seattle where her husband was based. They had a child, were planning to get a mortgage and everything seemed settled. My life turned away in one of its twists and turns, and we barely spoke in the years after, apart from the customary greetings on birthdays and New Years. So when she called yesterday, I was surprised. I had already wished her for New Year’s.

“I have decided to be a home-maker,” she told me.

I processed that slowly and tried to find the right response. Life and life’s choices rarely have any single right answer, so I just opted to let her speak. The hesitation surprised me. She is one of the boldest people I have met.

Then the story came in pieces and bursts, of a male boss, of attentions covert and overt, and of how she had tried to find inconspicuous ways to deflect the issue without affecting her job. Then it had ended her being called out as an easily offended little princess, and the other person had been promoted nicely with a raise, towards more responsibilities. Perhaps he was more valuable in terms of what he contributed. I don’t see the point in asking about any of that. So I let her talk.

“I don’t need this,” she finished. “My husband earns more than enough. I’ll do consulting later, perhaps. Maybe I’ll become a K12 teacher. I like teaching.”

“You’ll be brilliant at that,” I tell her honestly, because I know her skill set and abilities.

She had tried to teach me, under the red leaves of our school’s canopy, as we coded away in C for our high-performance computing assignment. She had told me to wear a ring on my left hand to keep the men away. She had told me that nothing good happened if I reported weird talk and touch to people whose job it was to listen to concerns like this. She had told me that the best way to deal with it was to learn to be very good at what we did, and to always have the ability to walk out on Friday and find something new on Monday. I learned under her tutelage and I am so very grateful. I hadn’t believed, sheltered as I had been then, that such things happened outside Mad Men. I had seen very little of the world. She taught me other matters too: how to slice onions without crying, how to use GDB effectively, and I’ll never forget the amazing explanation she gave me about how the compiler works. She was generous with what she knew and what she had, of her time and of the lessons she had learned. After my first breakup, I had run to Seattle to her, and she had told me kindly that we hadn’t been right for each other, and it was better for both of us in the long run. I had spent that week in a daze, walking with her by the piers, nodding along absently as she spoke of her life and work. She loves programming.

“You love programming,” I told her yesterday. I was unsure what I meant by that. Was I trying to get her to change her decision? Was I trying to offer a solution that avoided this sort of problem?

“Not enough to deal with this shit,” she told me cheerfully, already immersed in her plans for her future, already determined to leave all this behind her. I have always admired her boldness and strength of conviction.

“I read what you write,” she said then, apropos of nothing, changing the topic away from her news. “I like that you keep going on when such stuff happens at your work. And you’ve always worked in those male only type settings.”

It hasn’t been honestly as difficult as it could have been, as it has been for many. At the beginning of my career, I had strong male colleagues and superiors who were willing to protect me from this sort of stuff, when I needed that protection. And recently, when it happened, though there was no support system in this team setting, I was sufficiently confident in my ability to land on my feet somewhere else.

“I remember telling you to wear a jacket inside always because otherwise what if your nipples poke out through a t-shirt,” she says, laughing. “And you said that you weren’t going to obsess over your nipples when you had to take it in your stride that many of your colleagues wear jeans that just flash their arse-crack whenever they bend and stretch.”

I must have been very young then. I have seen much more than arse-cracks I hadn’t planned on seeing since that time, so long ago. I am rarely phased by that sort of thing, though. Bodies are bodies, and work is work, and I am not so demented that I hold people’s dressing choices against them. I expect that I am returned the favor, so that I don’t have to stress about wearing jackets to shield people from the perils of air-conditioning. Not everyone is the same though. I have had colleagues eye my legs when I skip shaving in the winter and wear skirts.

“Don’t you care?” a Japanese colleague had asked me once.

“Not enough,” I told him frankly. It was only a week after I had to deal with an intern whose clever tactic of dropping his keys whenever I wore a skirt had attracted quite some attention in our little team.

“I remember telling you to put up with things, to not complain, because nobody likes a whiner, because they’ll write you off as just a team downer,” my friend continues.

Yes, she had told me that, many times. Acceptable and unacceptable aren’t binary variables. It was all about the grey in between. And don’t complain. Whatever else you do, don’t complain, she had drilled into me.

“I hope things get better before my daughter becomes an engineer,” my friend continues merrily on the phone.

I hope so. I certainly want all that to happen sooner than later. I have also become less optimistic. There isn’t much of a business case for changing things from how they are. I’ll continue until I transition into something better and nicer for my life, walking out on Fridays to go somewhere new on Mondays as long as necessary and able.

“I wish they get it someday,” she mutters then, falling from her self-forced cheerfulness.

That is a slippery slope, from what I have seen. It is just easier to pick up and leave, and not deal with the ugliness that is past and futile, and not try to explain in vain what professionalism could be. Why swim upstream when you can swim with the current? I rarely get treated with anything less than condescension, as if I was hired as a quota-filling head, and mostly everyone is always surprised whenever I show competence. If I took that as a personal affront everywhere I go, I’ll be a very tired me. Instead, I bet on how long it will take for each new colleague to be convinced that I am capable enough, and I am always so happy if they are convinced faster than I expect them to be.

I don’t think that I should talk about these coping mechanisms of mine. So I change the subject, and tell her about my new job, which has been surprisingly pleasant so far, despite the vagaries of the commute involved. I’d commute to hell if it meant that I was treated like a human being, so that isn’t a deal-breaker.

When we end the call, she has managed to cheer me up, and promises to cheer on, and I promise to do the same for her. I wonder if I want all that she has, after all these days. Perhaps I don’t, not anymore. I have changed so, and on some days it terrifies me.

I end up drinking wine and crying a bit, even though I don’t really have any good reasons. Perhaps I am just sad that she’s leaving me behind, that I’ll have to carry on, lonelier than before, and we weep at night because joy cometh in the morning.

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It goes back to you. It goes forward to you. You have to exist, somewhere, and somewhere close. That faith is the crux of my carrying on now. Perhaps that is folly, but I think it is less delusional that waiting for a better dawn in this industry. All that I take in my stride today, I try to think about what waits at the end of this road, of you. I try to label these characters as inconsequential, in the big picture, and on some days I fear if this is to be all that there is. I’ll not last very long in this line of work if there is nothing beyond, if there is no you beyond.

I hope one day, soon, you’ll enter my life, and what you bring will be nothing like the crumbs I have been offered before.

Perhaps I shall tell you of what I have seen in this industry, and we’ll laugh together at the silliness of it all. Perhaps I’ll tell you what I plan to do, about how I plan to get away from this madding crowd.

Perhaps I can tell you of how much I love Lisp, without having to tell you what that brilliant man, who taught me so much about it, suggested as a Saturday past-time.

Perhaps I can tell you of how much I love this business of cars, and that I look forward to my mother being able to click and summon a ride one day on an app, without having to worry about unknown drivers and her safety, and when I tell you about this work of mine, I wonder if any of my words will be tainted by the men who had little qualm or care about trying to sabotage a career over a refusal to give them what they wanted.

Perhaps I’ll tell you of how you became the fulcrum of this simple machine, of how I have painted your flesh in my dreams. I have begun to long for you. I have begun to ask for you. And I’ll choose to believe that somewhere you are doing just the same, equally fiercely and full of longing, waiting for our lives to join and twine.

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trainsongs (The Sibelius Chronicles)

I started my new job on a windy, rainy day. When I arrived in San Francisco, one and a half hours after I’d left home, a cold gust of wind greeted me as I got off the train.

Then there was a brisk walk of half an hour, and I took in the forgotten smells and sounds of the city. There were people carrying briefcases and umbrellas, neck craned to support the wedged in phones that they were yelling into, a papercup of coffee part of their emphatic gesticulations as they tried to make many, many points. There were men carrying backpacks with laptops peeking out, Bose headphones about their necks, their thick fingers swiping away on Iphones. There were Lyfts and Ubers many in the traffic snarls at every junction, ferrying passengers about. There were also those giant, white shuttles, skulking about in corners, waiting to carry serfs down to the South Bay fields. I didn’t see any children. I carefully tuned my sight away from the tens of homeless men and women at bus-stops and under shop awnings, huddled tight in rags. I don’t understand the photographers who find it necessary to go all the way to India or Africa to take pictures of poverty and misery.

I’ve been jet lagged and feverish. So everything, from the shine of steel-grey clouds reflected off skyscraper glass windows, to sight of the trash on the sidewalks, to smell of coffee overbrewed, to the locomotion of the train, all sent me reeling slightly in overstimulation. I scraped it through the day, got back tired and hungry, and sat down to make a spreadsheet: time to look for lodging in the city.

Yesterday, I went to see eight to ten places. At each place there thronged about a dozen interested parties, mostly couples. They came prepared with credit reports, with cheques to cover the first and last month’s rent, as well as an additional month’s safety deposit. The places were expensive, with a minimum of three thousand five hundred for the base rent, without including parking and utilities. One of them charged for bike lockers. Only a few had washers and dryers installed inside the apartment. And when I took my customary walk to scope out the surround, I was greeted by the smell of piss, there were littered needles all around, and homeless souls staring at me bleak. I wish this was a writer’s exaggeration. My home state had a problem with stray dogs loose on the roads, and there were heated debates about what to do with them. Here, we’ve moved up the food chain.

“Remind me again why I wanted to move to the city,” I moaned, utterly desolate and devoid of hope in mankind.

“You wanted to meet non-tech people.”

My friend is always too blunt and rhetorical questions aren’t a concept she understands. Non-tech. Yes. About that, I didn’t meet many of them at the renters’ showings. They were mostly tech people.

“I don’t think this is going to work out,” I mutter, looking at my spreadsheet, looking at the dots on the map of San Francisco, looking at the worryingly red crime contours nearly everywhere.

“Moving to the city?” she asks, being literal about it all as she usually is.

I struggle for words then. Moving to the city is only a logistical issue. It is the rest of it I am referring to. Establishing a home, establishing a partnership, establishing a future. The possibility of meeting someone I like, someone outside tech. I am looking at that big three in two years, and I’d hate to wake up on that birthday alone. I feel I’ve been alone long enough, but I am also resolved not to waste time on people I don’t want enough, or who don’t want me enough. I’ve done all of that before, and felt sordid at the end. I’ve also done it right once, and we had flown from East Coast to West Coast and back every weekend until we ran of money and time, and we had completed each other’s thoughts and sentences, and he had always made a cappuccino for me at the end of our meals together. Everything else had always ended with recriminations and anger, with claims of me not being willing enough to fit into the role they desired me to fit into. Not this. We had eaten tiramisu one last time and we played together with borrowed instruments Mendelssohn’s Opus 81. I’d never cried during the period, always floating on a puffy cloud of happiness and contentment as I had been. There had been no pressure to be more or less. There was no exhortation to have a mind of my own, but to resign my will to his. There was only music and philosophy, tiramisu and wine, gardening and long road trips, brunch in Palo Alto and rowing on the Charles. I willfully stopped thinking about all of that, afterwards, and let my friend pick and choose my dates for weeks that dragged into months and then finally to a year. Not one sparked my interest, and I found most of them self-absorbed, with little in the way of empathy. They were really never sure if they wanted to keep it light, or if they wanted to immediately change their Facebook relationship status. They were all about personal discovery and improvement quests, aspiring disciples of Stoicism, detoxing and on juice cleanses, talking about supplements and crossfit, rock climbing and how they love hiking every weekend before brunch. Some had discovered Buddhism. For others, it was yoga and mindfulness. For yet many others, it was about meal prep and readiness for catastrophes. They were analyzing their previous relationships and looking for red flags. There were a few that were empathetic, but they had been battered by the world, and the ruins were not pleasant to see. Most found me too intense for their tastes. I don’t bother being less me these days. I’d tried that before, when I was younger, and it had only done me harm. So life went on, and I changed jobs once again, and decided to run away in between. It took me running away to the edge of the world, to far off Tasmania, to be alone listening to the waves of that great ocean, to properly grieve all that had been, and I came away resolved to look for it once again, now that I know what to look for, for someone fierce and true.

My friend notices that I’d spaced out of our conversation. I attempt to catch up with her, but she knows me too well by now, and she says, “That is going to be tough to find.”

“Well, I found it once.”

She sighs and says ‘Oh Darling’ in such a kind voice that I have to struggle not to cry. She has been trying hard to help me, but perhaps she doesn’t understand what I am looking for. I tell her about Nabokov’s Vera. It is a cherished childhood dream. Ever since I read of them, I’d wanted that for me too. So I’ll just have to keep looking for my Vera.

There are no women in the new group I am working at, again. It is quite nice though. I think they have cleaned up house after all their scandals last year. Nobody says anything hurtful or condescending, there is no ‘ragging’, as is usually the case on the first day to make you feel excluded and an imposter. I am tentatively hopeful about them continuing to be professional. Here is to that, and to finding an apartment in the city, and to finding my Vera.

masseuse

When I was young, I thought I’d have a torrid affair with a circus artiste. I’d swoop into their life and save them, and we’d live happily ever after. Once I got into a mundane field of work, my chances of meeting circus artistes were next to nil, and I moved my fantasies to masseuses. They too were nomads, and often had escaped difficult regimes and families to make their living here. I also had fond memories of the highly skilled, highly educated Ayurvedic masseuses one finds in my home state.

The masseuse was a step down from the circus artiste, but I thought it had potential. The parlors usually had bordello themed decorations and tacky music. All of that seemed appealing to the hot-headed girl I was. Then I met them, and found that they spoke very little English, that they were mostly scared and meek and did not make eye-contact most of the time. I heard terrifying stories of exploitation. So that snuffed out all my glitzy dreams of saving one. I used to get massages when I was cycling a lot, to get my neck and shoulders back in working condition every other week. I tried whichever places were close enough and cheap enough. They spoke little, had little training or talent to speak of, and were utterly forgettable.

Then I got lucky, and met one in a dingy parlor nearby my internship, back in 2013. She was highly skilled. She spoke little to no English at the time. Her technique reminded me favorably enough of Keralite traditions that I became a regular. The dingy parlor closed, but I asked around and found that she was now working at a more upscale, respectable location, under a different name. That did wonders for her over the years. She got a valid Social Security number, her English slowly improved, her clothes looked better, and she began smiling at her clients. We began to slowly talk, and I learned her real name. She told me a bit about her family back in Thailand. She told me about her kids and how they were learning English faster than she was. After two years, she started refusing my tips. And right when I thought she could surprise me no more, she began asking me questions, in stilted, broken English, about my life.

I’d been raised semi-Catholic, and remember those confessional stands, the curtains and the seclusion, of whispering secrets into another’s ear, of waiting to be judged and forgiven. In the privacy of her parlor, with only the faint sounds of classical music to keep us company, I began telling her of my life. It was a clunky conversation often, as I scrambled to find words she understood, as I tried to explain in many different ways until she exclaimed in comprehension. Some sessions were quieter than the others, as she worked and as I let her work. Twice, she set up dates with other clients of hers. I was quite happily surprised by the men she had selected. If not for my resolution to stay away from dating men who work in the tech industry, I think I might have liked to see how things went.

I went in today after quite a long while. She asked me what had kept me away for so long. I told her about work and resigning from it, about being harassed at work and about how I’d been implicitly signalled to put up with it. Then I felt silly, because she had seen much worse, if that first dingy parlor was anything to go by. She must have sensed what I was thinking of, because she said that sort of stuff hadn’t happened in a long while to her. It happens to the young ones, she said. They tip well, those clients, she said, and she seemed serious enough that I felt very sorry for the world we live in.

When I set out to leave, she gripped my arm and told me in her broken English that I reminded her of the lotuses of Thailand. I asked her why. Eats mud, flowers for Gods, she said. She was smiling and serious, so I nodded, still poorly practiced in accepting compliments gracefully. She did not mind my clumsiness, and surprised me once more as she hugged me for the first time of her own initiative.

I didn’t find a torrid love in the massage parlors, but I found someone important nevertheless.

knew you once

Even the weariest river must make its way to the sea, and I ended up in Kerala, to close this year. My brother made his way here too. So here we are now, scarcely recognizable to each other, and to our family. We go through the motions of family and home, and wonder in our own ways about where we find meaning and belonging. Even writing does not bring forth words now, as I strive to put it all together, as I try to track through the past to see where that moment of sundering was, or when it had been. Perhaps it had been long ago, on a day I can’t even remember now. Perhaps it had been gradual. I don’t know now. I am not in a mood to reflect, so I take a deep breath and mingle now, trying to find new ways of relating to all of this. It comes easier than in previous times, and I am no longer nursing old hurts and fears, and that realization in itself is an epiphany of magnitude that I am unwilling to process. Neither of us have grown up to be what my family wanted of us, and that is only too evident now. There is resistance to that conclusion here, and there is still casting us in moulds we don’t fit in any longer and perhaps never did. Perfection is still expected, along different dimensions, and we find ourselves imperfect, asymmetric, content human beings that failed. It doesn’t matter, we realize, as long as the contentment is present. It isn’t a moment’s lesson and a happily ever after. There is ever a struggle, but it is at least a struggle of which we know the ending now.

Kerala has changed too. Global warming has affected the land adversely. The mountains that I remember as huge guardians of green, cut across on the sides by the monsoon rivulets, are now standing near barren and brown. The sight is frightening. The water in the wells is lower than I’ve ever seen it before. The westerly winds bear little moisture. In a moment of childish imagination, I wonder if everything stopped growing when we left as little children running away from all that they knew. I think of the tale of the selfish giant, and I have to chide myself to rein in my musings.

Here, on red soil, underneath banyan trees, stepped in the superstitions of old gods of tribal lore, before the whitewashed crosses of my grandparents’ faith, imagination was only ever half a step from reality itself. I had shed all that, I thought, when I’d left. I’d scrubbed myself presentable, without quirks and curves and shadows, and fit in with the world of cubicles and cities, rectangular flats and English as the common tongue. What are you, they’d asked? Only a worker bee, plainly heterosexual, with standard, middle class aspirations, desiring to work a 9-to-5, dreaming little and wanting nothing more than a mortgage and a family of four to fit in a square frame, wanting to stay clear of any ambition outside career growth, wanting to put up with silly bosses and men who like a side of harassment with their tea. And I realize that too is a reason why coming here is complicated. I am forced to confront what I’d managed to cloak and carve up out of myself to be where I am now. I’d surrendered dreams and will and a great deal of myself when I crossed the ocean. It hasn’t been without its benefits, and knowing all this now I’d make the same choices still. I’d thought I’d be able to unlock and gather all of myself once I reached a place, once I found stability, once I reached an age. I am more dubious about all that now, though still clinging to hope as tightly as I used to cling to my family’s hands when crossing roads.

Aging is a harsh process. As I see family only once every year, I am frightened by the changes I see on each visit. I try to prepare myself mentally each time I come over, but I am still stricken. It is uncomfortable, harsh and difficult to process. Life goes on, they say. So much for my childish fancy where I imagined everything from the land to the trees to the skies to the people frozen and stagnant as they had been when I had first stepped out.

2017 wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was just another year. I hope 2018 will have better events and people for me. I am looking forward to a new city and new colleagues.

I haven’t done New Year here in ages. Usually, it was Christmas and back. This time, I’d spent Christmas elsewhere. We are going to do a quiet New Year’s here, I think.

Hope you have a wonderful 2018 ahead of you!

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.

Sinnerman

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.

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