Friday, February 10, 2017

Reflections: The Goldfinch

After a really long time, a book caught me in its throes and wrung me out in the best way possible. 

When the dust settled down after the hype, and after my husband's fervent recommendation, I began reading this tome of a book with its intimidating size and intriguing premise surrounding an orphaned boy and a masterpiece of a painting. A painting plays an important role in the coming of age story of an orphaned boy? I think this apparent absurdity is what pushes one to get past the first few slow moving chapters. The author compels the reader into curiosity and establishes a firm investment in the boy's chaotic life. 

Let the size of the book not intimidate you. Once you get sucked in, you will wade and swim through it fast enough, because there are many questions - practical and philosophical - you want answered. And it's a refreshing bout of relief when nothing is left hanging to the reader's interpretation like most award-winning-cerebral books are wont to do. Everything is wrapped and tied, and concluded in the most practical and philosophical way possible. It left both my heart and mind satisfied and replete. If you are wondering how a book can end on seemingly contradictory notes of practicality and philosophy - that's where the book gets its well-deserved recognition and merit. 

"sometimes bad things need to happen to bring about something good in the end"

"sometimes good things lead to bad things"

We all react to life and its tragedies and triumphs in markedly different ways. But, during each phase, what we are fighting for is the desperate need to establish and find meaning, to attribute meaning to something instead of nothing, and to hold onto an anchor of support, a coping mechanism to help us stay afloat. How we establish meaning, and to what we cling onto as anchors/coping mechanism is up to the individual. Viewed from this basic truth, rights and wrongs, good and bad, have little relevance. Viewed from a detached and high-level perspective, the characterizations of actions/motivations seem insignificant in relation to the picture that emerges; all the numerous deeds and events transform to mere stitches and knots and zigzagging threads of colors when we step back and view the big picture of the tapestry that came together because of them. In the end, it's the forest, never the trees. Does it matter whether we followed an invisible (but existent) pattern, or if a pattern emerged incidentally?

We can try very hard to do the right thing to someone (and to ourselves), but that may not help that person find stability and meaning in their lives, because what "ought to be done" is never objective. Each person finds their own truth, or a version of the truth that they can live with. We weave our own realities, lay down structures with things that provide meaning to us. 

Some striking quotes that pulled together everything for me:

"How can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet - for me, anyway - all that's worth living for lies in that charm?"

"...I've come to realize there's no truth beyond illusion. Because, between reality on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And - I would argue as well - all love."

"And just as the music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of colors across the sky - so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime"

"Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair."

Really interesting characters, compelling writing, and universal themes that are cohesively brought together in a unique context. Highly recommended read. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Accumulating Little Joys

In the several millions and billions of moments that life encompasses (if we are so lucky), it is reasonable to expect happiness to only be bursts of moments than a constant flow. For it is almost psychologically impossible for us to be in a prolonged state of happiness (or sadness) before habituation sets in, and we no longer recognize or experience the emotion (kind of like walking into a perfume store and our olfactory senses becoming inured to the scents until everything is neutralized)

Then, it is reasonable for us to calibrate more achievable expectations towards what constitutes as happiness. If even our greatest achievements can only give us a small set of finite moments of happiness, then pursuing ambitions for the sake of happiness seems futile (Self-fulfillment is a different category)
So, it follows that accumulating little joys through the course of our day is a better way to infuse those bursts of good moments in our everyday lives. Fitting simple pleasures and joys into those many many small moments seems more tangible than wanting to win a Nobel Prize to be truly "happy". 
If we take care to notice, indulge, or pause from the constant running, there are endless things around us to bring joy, pleasure, or a moment of peace and contentment. Once something like that is noticed - like an unexpected rainbow arching across a bridge, pause and fill your senses with the beauty of the moment. Meditate and immerse into that moment, appreciate every shade and angle of the rainbow, the magnificence of the man-made structure towering to meet the colors, the clouds, the birds, the sun, the noises.... everything. A moment of joy could even be spotting a beautiful and elegant line of logic in a co-worker's code/writing. We often notice so many such little things that appeal and strike us, but we are quick to move on... so quick to dismiss the sunburst of light that they bring. What an irony that we should dwell so very much on the inverse of such things - a slight hint of rudeness, set-down, or disappointment. We immerse ourselves into every shade and nuance (imagined, extrapolated, and exaggerated), relive it so many times until reality blurs and takes on a new shape.

In the pursuit of accumulating little moments of joy that build through the day, I hope to dwell more on the joys, and dust, dismiss, and move on from the negativity as quickly as possible. For, happiness is achievable in small tangible doses, regardless of our bigger, intractable circumstances.

Linger in the joy of a well-brewed cup of tea, the tinkle of your new bright bangle, the warmth of your colleague, the courtesy of a driver, the beauty of the mountains around, the calming scent of the new candle, the innocent question of a child, the perfect comfort of your own bed, the loving voice of your mother, an unexpected compliment from a stranger, the lovely shade of your recent toe-polish, the satisfaction of a well-cooked meal, the endless stars on a cloudless night, etc. etc.

Will I be living a delusional life filled with dopamine hits I get from vivid colors, music, and thoughts? Then, so be it! May all my six senses forage for everything bright and beautiful. 
Better a happy lunatic than a miserable intellect!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Coming into your own

This year I vow to feel the refreshing liberation of taking responsibility for my own happiness. It took time, but I may be finally coming into my own. 

A realization I have made is that life's lessons are unfortunately terribly cliched. And everyone has already talked, written, and theorized everything to death and beyond. But the true magic is in experiencing and coming to realize the enlightened truth for yourself. Give yourself time to experience life in all its forms. Be a part of all experiences - good, bad, and the ugly.
 Herman Hesse and many other wise souls have already advocated this philosophy.

As much as I would never wish anyone to go through ugly/bad phases in life, the terrible truth is that ugliness reveals the stark clarity of so many truths. Everything gets distilled and viewed through a sharp prism of reality. It makes you realize what is worth living and all the many many things/people/circumstances that are unworthier than a speck of dust. 

Live for yourself first. Never be dependent on others for affection, love, or happiness. Find ways to bring yourself happiness. Only then are you equipped to reflect and shine that positive light onto others.  There is much joy in spreading joy, but you should first cultivate it within yourself to enable the distribution. 

Learn to love yourself first. Everything seems to fall into place once you are able to find value in yourself. If you are unsure of your worth, don't expect anyone else to affirm it for you. Nobody ought to, and nobody will. The peace and joy that come from embracing and realizing your own worth is priceless. Consequently, when you come into your own, and live your life in accordance with your true self, you invite only kindred souls into your sphere. Those that see your true self may choose to love you for who you truly are. 

Nothing is unconditional, most specifically, love. All relationships - friendships, filial/familial, marriage - are based on a contract of giving something and receiving something in return. If the balance is upset, the relationship crumbles. 

If "Y" is expected to be received in a relationship, but you are unable to provide it, accept that it will always be an imbalance, a void, a bitter hollow. You cannot fill it or substitute with a million different types of "Xs, Zs, As, Bs, Ts, Fs, Ls, Rs, Ws or Qs". You will only end up weary and scraped raw from your efforts. 

Romance exists only in fairy tales. Life is about multiple contracts you make with the people you meet. Some contracts fail, some are successful. It has nothing to do with your innate self, and everything to do with the terms of the contract. Therefore, don't hesitate to know what you want, and demand what you want before committing to give anything to anyone.

When you are considering doing something "right" for the sake of upholding a principle that essentially involves shooting yourself in the foot - pause. It's okay to be self-preserving in such a scenario. Never try to do something "right" when you are sure to suffer the consequences alone for the rest of your life. If you don't stand up for yourself, no one will. Self-sacrfice and martyrdom must be reserved for truly significant issues. 

Self-actualization is empowering and beautiful. Do not ever shade it in negativity. 

Accept that life is unfair. The world is chaotic and ruthless. Selfishness is intrinsic to the very rhythm of this universe, and in every breath of survival. Embracing this reality, boldly exercise your right to actualize your self, to strive for your own happiness, to demand and go after what you want, to find meaning and worth in your own self. You may not be successful all the time or in every measure, but that's okay. It's better to strive and fail in some ways than to conform, contort and mold yourself to a version of "who you are supposed to be".

Give the ever-judgemental society in which we live the metaphorical middle-finger by living true to yourself, by reveling in the contentment of such an honest existence. Internal resonance is music to the soul.

Expect nothing from others. Instead, expect and extract everything from within your own vast reserves of self.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Memorable Non-Fiction Reads of 2014

Continuing from where I left off in my previous post, I actually did manage to read a few non-fiction books - cover to cover - and that's saying something. About the books, that is. So among the few that I read, I recommend the below two books.

Ever since I heard the author's interview on NPR, I knew I was going to read the book. His unassuming humility and enthusiasm for his work is something to aspire for. This book is a collection of all his research findings and insights; his career packaged in an engaging read.

Anyone that's interested in evolution and human biology would find this book interesting and fascinating. There's much to learn and absorb, especially regarding the mysteries of human reproduction and early parenting. It might frustrate some that there are hardly any solid conclusions or answers, but just a very careful discussion of experiments and facts that separate correlation from causality - sometimes painstakingly. If you are a researcher, you would appreciate it. But regardless of anything, your appreciation and wonder for the miracle of life and the mind-boggling complexity surrounding it would only grow upon reading this book.

Oliver Sacks and his books need no introduction.

Music plays a special role in most of our lives. And sometimes we wonder what role it plays in human evolution. Why does it bring so much happiness and comfort? How do we pull out compositions from the brain and store different notes in the abstractness of our neurons? Why and how do the arrangement of some notes bring so much harmony and appeal? etc.

I expected this book to answer some of these questions, but instead it was a collection of anecdotes of Sacks's interactions with patients who suddenly and (supposedly inexplicably) developed an unusual talent and interest in music after a traumatic brain-related injury, and those with special conditions that perceived music in completely unexpected, different ways. The medical cases and stories were interesting, and they further provide evidence that creativity and talent depend primarily on how our brain cells get wired and connected. I am not sure how I feel about that. Should I literally hope to be struck by lightning so that my brain rearranges itself a little, and I can paint and sing better?

In any case, this was a good read, and if you are interested in music and the brain, you would find this book worth your time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Memorable Books of 2014

Last year was an interesting reading year. I ventured into genres that I previously never imagined exploring, and discovered that good writers and engaging themes exist in every stereotypical genre. It opened up my mind and made me less of a book-snob. By my count, I seem to have read more than 80 books last year, and I kept count hoping that I would eventually gather enough motivation to write about most of them, if not all.  But now, I am only alarmed, because most books in that list were light, fluffy reads and nothing exceptional. When I culled through the list, I was disappointed at the paltry few that stood out as good, decent reads. I realize I am in a phase where I can't handle reading serious books with heavy themes because my brain has taken a (hopefully temporary) reprieve.  How I manage to hold onto semi-logical thoughts through the day, I don't know...

Anyway, so here's a short reflection of my reading, and the few books that stood out.

 I dreaded reading this book. When it garnered rave reviews in 2012, I was skeptical and I put off reading it until I picked it up on a whim.
It's a book that deals with sensitive topics regarding euthanasia, the freedom to choose to end one's life, and the struggles of trying to live life whilst paralyzed and trapped in a wheelchair. An active, intelligent mind only makes this worse. Having worked  and spent considerable time with such population of people, I am especially sensitive to this subject. However, this book and the author surprised me on so many levels. No book thus far has affected me like this one. I am sure it has to do with me personally knowing and losing people who have lived similar lives, but nonetheless, I was really moved by the sensitive handling of all the complex themes. Everything about the book is realistic and honest. Nothing is overdone. Almost every dialog, conversation, and situation reminded me of real interactions I have had, and that shook me and wrung out my heart. If there is one element that could have been explored more, it is the technology aspect. Technology has come a long way (but still needs a lot of research) in empowering the physically challenged population. And because of my background, I was awake at nights thinking of all the ways I would have "helped" the protagonist with the opportunities that technology provides... he could have continued with work, his business, started more initiatives, and done so much more! The fact that I obsessed over this fictitious character as if he were real, and wanted to desperately do what I could to help, shows how well written and well-researched the book is.

And there is humor and wit, without anything being the least bit misplaced or insensitive.

Not everyone will "agree" with how things end. But, this is one reality. A tragically real one at that. I know it exists out there, and I have felt enough anguish from people and families to come close to understanding the helplessness of things. The questions and divergent thoughts the story invokes are several people's sad reality. Morality takes a back seat; compassion and dignity come to the fore.

This is a book that makes you feel and think deep, and really brings in perspective to your own life, making you want to live it to the fullest.


 Classified as Romance, this book is much much more than that.

Amy Harmon writes beautifully in this coming of age story that sounds simple, that seems to address hackneyed themes on beauty/inner-beauty like countless other stories, but this one stands apart. This struck chords within me so deep, there was such resonance. It triggered so many many memories and reminded me of my blessings in life. Maybe the emotional resonance is why I like the book so much.

It is moving and thoughtful, with some extremely beautiful quotes sprinkled throughout the book.

"Have you ever stared at a painting so long that the colors blur and you cannot tell what you're looking at anymore? There's no form, face or shape - just color, just swirls of paint?
I think people are like that. When you really look at them, you stop seeing a perfect nose or straight teeth. You stop seeing the acne scar or the dimple in the chin. Those things start to blur, and suddenly you see them, the colors, the life inside the shell, and beauty takes on a whole new meaning."

That about sums up the book. Parts of it might be unrealistic, but the strong thoughts and emotions it conveys make up for those parts.

What does infidelity mean to us? Is physical infidelity different from emotional infidelity? Is one worse than the other? What if one follows all the "rules" but still blurs the lines of fidelity? When is the spirit of fidelity violated when all the rules are followed to the tee? And is it even possible to equally love two people?

Interesting questions, interesting explorations. I am drawn towards subjects with such gray areas, so no one will be surprised that I found this book to be an absorbing and interesting read all the way until 2/3rds of it. Then it became yet another romance novel and things turned mushy, and everything was tied up neatly, far too neatly in the end. But it's okay, happy endings are good too, and for the most part, things were honest.

I was pleasantly surprised that such topics are being explored in "new adult"/romance genres. Even more refreshing was the fact that there was not much drama in the story, just a lot of angst and introspection, and open communication. Plus, none of the characters were stereotyped - no one is termed pure bad or pure good. Well, the guy is too good to be true - a talented musician/computer programmer with a severe hearing impediment - but, oh well. My heart melted into a puddle at several instances.

All in all, a different, unexpected read. Other books by the same author were not that interesting, though.

Enough with all the angst and sorrow! For an intelligent, hilarious, emotionally moving read, turn to this lovely book. Even Bill Gates recommends it ;)

The premise of the book:
What if someone like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory sets out to scientifically find a wife?

If you are a nerd/geek or are frequently in the company of such specimens, you will appreciate this book all the more. I am a nerd who is almost always surrounded by super smart geeks that make me (unknowingly) feel dumber than rocks, and I'm married to an obsessively logical nerd. So, it is an understatement to say I could appreciate every line of the book. I deeply, deeply appreciated and empathized!

This is not just a fun read. It is intelligently written to explore topics on identity, acceptance, and the hilarity of social structures and stigmas.

This is a combination of light and deep read - if that makes any sense. You can dig deep through simple lines, if you choose to, or just enjoy the craziness of Prof Don!


And finally, onto something that totally falls under the guilty-pleasure-reading category. Yes, these books are unapologetically romantic, but so very different from the usual angst-ridden, nauseatingly irritating ones.

No one would believe me, but until 2014, I'd never read more than 2 romance novels in my life (well, if you discount Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte). I hated them with a passion. I wanted to burn most of them. Yet, last year, I happened to fall back on the comforting fantastical notion of rainbows and unicorns to escape my reality for a little while. And I somehow discovered Julie Garwood, laughed my way through the first book, and got hooked. Humor along with romance seems to be my cup of tea. After all those Wodehousian years, it's not much of a surprise...

Julie Garwood writes romances that balance all the elements I enjoy. There is plenty of humor, strong-willed, intelligent (yet flaky) heroines that boldly speak their minds to hilariously gruff warriors and pirates, lots of heart, warmth, some intrigue, witty and humorous dialogues, enjoyable characters, and good writing. This is like my perfect recipe for chocolate cake.

If you read one book, you pretty much know the rest, because yes, they do follow a "recipe" of sorts. But just like you resort to your well-worn, fail-proof recipe when you crave for a piece of chocolate cake, I resort to Julie Garwood when I need a dose of fantasy every couple of weeks. I know what to expect, and yet there are enough differences and a decent plot to provide a truly satisfying read. And don't worry if you are a feminist - you would find these acceptable too ;).

I have read around 11 books of hers so far, but if I had to pick, the above three (The Gift, The Secret, and The Bride) would be my top 3 favorites. I laughed out loud in the middle of the night and woke the house while reading them. And I wonder whom I'm reminded of when I read about flaky, accident-prone, absent-minded women with a pitiable sense of direction...

Hopefully I read better books in 2015!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mad World

All I can hear through my mind... over and over... at least for now...

"All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places
Worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere
Going nowhere

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you
I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it's a very very
Mad world
Mad world"

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Of Alternate Realities

While researching and reading on something entirely different, less-than-perfect search results led me to this paper. And I couldn’t help reading it, because the content of this paper is something that I have often thought about.

I know I sound like a stern middle-aged matron with her hair in a severe bun, with tight lips and narrowed, scowling eyes framed with thick catty glasses when one reads this post – BUT, I want to believe I am not exactly such a severe, prudish person...

I am not really sure why I need to type this out or even post it, as this brain dump of mine has been languishing in my draft folder for several months. As with most of my posts, I don't see the point it would serve if I posted it, other than perhaps hurt, anger or irritate people. And worst of all, I know I come across sounding bitter, caustic, and judgmental, when I (hope and think and believe) am not holding onto any such emotions. I am merely voicing because I understand myself and my thoughts better when I do. In a way this blog is my narcissistic attempt to mainly understand and help myself. 
Social networking serves many purposes - mainly useful, heartening, positive functions of bringing people closer, comforting those in need of social support, quickly and efficiently promoting products and services, and voicing out issues that need to be heard and spread.

But to the majority of us, the majority of the time, they are distracting indulgences that subtly and deeply latch onto our insecurities and vices. I have seen this shift in me, and it has scared me; it still scares and disturbs me, so I am not judging. It's an observation - something that many can relate to and are already aware of.

Social networking sites are also a means to carefully construct one’s identity and reality – with narratives that frame idealized versions of how we want our lives and our self to be perceived. It’s a meticulous snapshot (well, sometimes, or most times, a relay) of who we want to be known as, not necessarily, who we are. It’s a tireless attempt at competing for and maintaining this idealized version – always thinking about the next best picture to take, how to take it, how to post it, how to caption it; what smart, witty, and nonchalant observation to make about trending news; how to turn a mundane activity into x number of likes, etc. And this surely encourages a form of narcissism that’s a blow to any attempt at truly realizing and accepting our inner-self – of who we really are and of who we want to be. Worse yet, it robs one of those many many moments within the present, because they cannot be captured through a post or a picture, and hence are lost from observation or enjoyment. Like when a person concentrates very very hard to take that perfect (clich├ęd) picture of wine glasses “casually” arranged around plates of fancy-looking Hors d'oeuvres while also capturing a hint of the background scene to make it look just the right amount of hip, cool, “elite” and sophisticated. After 10 or more attempts with the camera and 5 or more minutes of missed conversation and good food, the person is still focused on posting the picture online to frame the narrative of their elite lifestyle on weekends, and is eagerly checking their status to see the first series of likes and comments. If this is not an obsessive need for validation, that too for merely projecting an identity that one wants to step into, I don’t know what else is. If one fails to ignore the interpersonal connections within the present and tries to seek it through digitized, sometimes mindless, notifications that assuage their notions of identity, isn’t it a cry for help?

And selfies just bring up so many more hidden layers about one’s need for approval and validation on so many aspects, ranging from vanity, body-image issues, self-esteem to perception of social popularity. Sometimes, the insecurities that bleed from a selfie are too embarrassing to ignore. Why would one want to take so many pictures of themselves so frequently and with such calculated precision that makes it seem casual? I think gone are the days when we relied on mirrors to reassure or spike our insecurity. Now, everyone whips out their phone camera (sometimes in front of a mirror – the irony) and relies on the picture rather than the reality staring them in their face to understand how to feel about themselves. And after several attempts with angles, poses, and lighting, when that perfect selfie is taken, what is the point of sharing it? To share what exactly? Of how effortlessly pretty and put-together they look almost every hour of the day? Of how their days are filled with a ceaseless flow of interesting activities and people that want to be near them, hug them, and smile with them? Of how happy they are with their partner, seemingly all the time, wherever they go, and whatever they do? Like several others, I am no stranger to seeing couples that put on fake smiles for a selfie to craft an alternate version of reality. Sharing one’s happiness and special moments with people in our close network is something I definitely understand. But the compulsive need to share fake happiness and smiles to convince people time and again of something that doesn’t exist – is disturbing and sad. Or is it because the picture becomes authentic and “real” in our mind as it garners more likes and comments? Does it take a life of its own and grow into something that we want it to be when we release it within our network? Almost like planting an idea, a thought within ourselves because we want to believe in it so much?

And with all this careful framing and manipulation of reality, all that one does is to show how much they conform to the homogenous clique of people that eat similar kinds of food, that travel to similar places, do similar activities, and post similar kinds of updates. They make a statement that they are all similarly cool, happy, and even edgy. But with each post and picture, there is also an equally desperate attempt to show that they are also slightly, ever so slightly, different. And everyone is scrambling to establish their own “delta” of edginess and uniqueness with repeated attempts with their cameras and mental rehearsals of things to post. But to what end? As with most things in life, will superficiality and fakeness also level itself off at some point and will there be an equilibrium in and of itself within the online world? I think so. There will always be a point when alternate realities crumble and crack. And even within the hundreds of thousands of people that thrive with some measure of external digitized validation, a truly “needy” and "fake" person stands out, eventually. And they would need to start working on “damage control” if they want to be accepted into the pool again.  

I understand that most of us need to create our own haven of reality so that we can live through aspects of our lives that are less-than ideal. I get it. I am not immune to it. All of us have good reason to be selective of what we post and share, and how we choose to project ourselves to the world. Our need to look our best is rooted in our core. So this post of mine is not to chide or judge anyone, nor to make a sweeping, generalized comment on everyone that is active on social networking sites and that post or don’t post selfies. It’s about how destructive this indulgence can be, especially on individuals that are lost, on young adolescents and teenagers that are trying to figure out who they are through the lens of made-up profiles and superficial relationships. Maybe that’s just the next phase of our evolution. Maybe this is how people will make sense of the world and themselves, and this is the future (or rather the present) form of establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships.If you can thrive on social networking sites while maintaining a reasonably healthy sanity - you are one of the fittest that has survived, or that will continue to survive.