Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Complex Problems and Their Simple Solutions - overdue introspection and acceptance

It’s rather strange how the human mind, and by that I mean my own mind, keeps amazing me time and again. No, I’m not trying to lead with hinting at what a genius I think I am- quite the contrary actually.

I was in this never-before-known lull phase up until this morning; heck, I’d go far enough to say I was down till this evening. Then suddenly, a couple of hours ago, the storm passed. Or at least I think I did.

All these days I had been complaining far too much for my own comfort. I wouldn’t say I’ve always been a very contented and satisfied person but unemployment and near-bankruptcy made me, as the title of my last post would suggest, a borderline pessimist.

I’ve been aware enough to use the word “borderline”. I think there’s a core element embedded somewhere in my brain that basically doubles as a control switch. If the incoming voltage crosses the limit, this control switch gets tripped automatically. Then it’s like I’m ‘in a state of war’ with myself. It’s like three people live inside me – a borderline pessimist, a realist and an optimist.

So when the controls switch trips, my emergency response system is activated almost immediately. The onslaught of negativity and frustration that signals the beginning of a storm becomes something that I am relatively prepared for.

I expect things to get out of hand, to second guess myself and I would definitely expect mood swings and self-isolation. Good thing I expected all that because a lot more than just those things happened. It was like a toxin was sneaking through my circulation system, quietly spreading its lethal contents in my body.

Boy, am I glad that the antidote, that switch, was already in place and functioning. It was like I had been vaccinated to the joblessness virus already.

Now the main question is - what happened?

What happened in a couple of hours that undid the effects of an entire month?

The truth is – I am not sure. If I had to take a guess and give you a one-word answer, I’d say “acceptance” is what happened. I think I was finally able to break free of the tight grip that Negativity had over me.
That said, don’t go about picturing a phoenix-like image just yet.

It’s not like I am now a worry-free living creature with no care in the world about having no job or having to switch to a thrifty lifestyle. This isn’t magic and I’m not a fictitious character in one of JK Rowling’s books. 
So I wouldn’t trust the onset of ‘reality with a hint of optimism’ so soon in the transition phase. It will probably come and go for a while. But as I see it, once it’s begun, the rest will follow through.

I guess the trick to emerging from this deep, dark well has always been acceptance. It makes complete sense now and from previous experience, acceptance has always been the key for me to move on. For some reason, I never imagined something so obvious to be the key to this problem.

A few days ago, I was on the phone, having a very normal conversation. As breezily as ever, the voice on the other line said, “What fun is life without some struggle, right? Redemption wouldn't be so thrilling without the struggle.” 
Now even though that's not news to me, I probably just needed someone to crisply phrase something that should be obvious and slip it into a conversation without making a big deal about it.

I’m not someone who “shares my problems” with every other person. I have very few close friends by choice. I have never endorsed the concept of being a very social and public person, having a thousand friends and calling them all by “BFFs”. I cannot relate to that mentality.

I choose to have very few close friends – people who I care about unconditionally and will go out of my way for. Some of these people know me intensively, others know me well enough to confirm this – I never ask for help. I’m what they call “khuddaar” in Hindi.

Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, I was really not on my game during this whole crazy loony phase. That means I actually did tell some people close to me about what was messing with my head. To me, that’s a big deal. To the world, no one gives a damn and I am totally cool with that.

The two or three people that knew what was going on with me, did their absolute best to console, support and encourage me. I am now and will be forever more, grateful to them.

But the one line that finally resonated through my brain, came from someone who wasn’t on the confidante list.

The miracle worker’s identity shall remain protected. I can tell you, though, that she is a woman of substance with a pure, clean and large heart. A lady who knows what it means to struggle and what redemption feels like. Someone who is honest, caring and continues to work tirelessly for those around her without a thought for herself. An inspiration in her own right.

Yeah life’s got its issues but I’m thinking – I must have something right somewhere down the road to here, to be blessed with a family so complete and strong that I never get de-energized.

These people in my life are major contributors to today’s acceptance. Never before have I appreciated the role that people play in one’s life, as I have over these last two years.

People who knew the teenage me well remember how much I hated the ‘cheesyness’ of people and the hoopla about relationships. Some horrible experiences and a lot of learning, growing up and maturing later, that opinion is now drastically different.

I believe people I hold close to my heart have all played a part, however big or small, in shaping the person I turned out to be today. I’ve learned what to do and what not to do from these people and my interactions with them. I’ve understood which relationships matter. I’ve survived heartache and lost friendships.

Look at this this way – it’s like life is a long process of weeding out the bad stuff to end up with the best of the lot in every category.

Survival of the fittest comes to mind here. I’ve met and known literally thousands of people over the last 24 years. Some stayed longer than others, some were closer, some earned immediate ‘dislikes’. But those who stand with me today, have themselves reached here through a rigorous screening process of their own.

I think our minds unconsciously screen people at every step – weeding out the bad and keeping the good. So ultimately, what we end up with is a circle of the best, closest and toughest friends and family members.
That’s just a theory at this point but it makes sense to me. If I were an anthropologist, I’d explore it further. But I’m an environmental scientist/journalist. (So if anyone ever does study it, I’ll write a story on it. Ha!)

Can you believe I hated the ‘cheesyness of people’? This whole write-up reeks of it!
Ready for some more?

Acceptance is going to be good, I think. A negative and frustrated approach or attitude just clogs my mind and severely hampers productivity. With a mind that is no longer claustrophobic and polluted, I can breathe easy again and set out to find work with a better attitude.

I can complain however much I want. Truth is, at the end of the day, I know too well that my genetic and mental framework do not believe in the idea of ‘giving up’.

In fact, I’m someone who never has just one plan. (Yeah I know plans don’t always work out – all the more reason to have multiple ideas.) I always have a back-up plan.

And this whole chaos of thoughts in my head is precisely why I said my mind never ceases to amaze me of its potential to store and process information. (I don’t really approve of generalizations hence the reference to my own mind as opposed to all of mankind.)

Now, because I have already written 1,337 words, and before I end up writing another ‘thesis-length’ piece, I’d suggest you go back to doing something other than wasting time reading my musings.
Rest assured, if you still want to waste time, I will be back here sooner than later for as long as I remain unemployed. J

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Borderline Pessimist - what a simple break in chronology can do.

They say that adversity really teaches you a lot. Honestly, I don't know who "they" are and what the "lot" is. I am not sure if the current circumstances that constitute my life qualify as 'adversity', but I'm going to say they do. Why? Simple- this is the first time I've been in at the bottom of this particular well and the process of dealing with it is pretty daunting.
'Unemployed' is a status that I have never had to associate with myself before now. Quite naturally, the frustrations and sheer availability of time that come with being unemployed, are new to me. Both throw me off to some extent because they bring a very intimidating sense of unpredictability and an uneasy feeling of inconsistency into my very existence. I understand that change is the only constant and all of that metaphorical pseudo-comforting stuff.
I'm not saying I want every inch of my plans to work out to the T. I know better than to think that by this time but it wouldn't hurt, after all this while, to have at least some consistency.
Apart from feeling like a nomad who belongs neither to the United States nor to India, I have ambitions piling up inside my by the dozen and being jobless is kind of burying them. It's like having no outlet for a body of ambitions bursting at the seams.
Sounds a little 'rich kid who grew up in luxury' but look closer and tilt your head a little and you might just see what I do.
This is definitely not the first time in my life that I am dealing with a difficult situation. Life has been very generous with those. (Yes, I'm sure everyone thinks that. And I'm very sure that I have it way better than most will or ever did.) Even so, this particular phase is, like I said, new.
I haven't been at these depths of this well before so I don't know where the ladder is. I don't know how long the ladder is and how long it will take me to get back up so I can hoist myself out of this well.
I assume that it takes a while to find one's footing when one is scrambling for grip on a slippery, moss-covered floor. Hands flailing around, gauging the width; legs busy with the primary task of staying afloat in this chin-deep water.
Thing is, it's comparatively easy to be this third person with an aerial view of the 'person-in-the-well' and be practical about the fact that stability takes time. Problem is, when this third person herself, falls into the well - it's like telling a drowning person that it's going to be ok. You don't know that and they sure as hell don't.
This matter-of-fact attitude is helpful, yes, but it's difficult to keep it intact when fear, frustration, impatience and desperation start to squeeze their way into your thought process.
It's like an all-out attack by invasive species (thoughts) to take over the indigenous species' habitat. Tried and tested pesticides (organic or not) don't seem to get rid of these double-edged invasive thoughts. Clearly, this calls for a "new" strategy. (I'm already getting sick of that word in quotation marks.)
So what is this unknown and as-yet-imaginary strategy?
Well, if I had figured that one out, I wouldn't be sitting at my computer on a Saturday night writing this, listening to the Chennai Express soundtrack to reduce the volatile effects of reading the world news. Occupational hazard, I guess.
These last few weeks have given me plenty of time to think about stuff, for one. I'll admit that I didn't always think about the most productive things or the most important issues. I spent several hour watching absolutely ridiculous Hindi films, some wonderful films, reading 23 pages of a book I have had for a year and doing something I NEVER got to do while I was in graduate school - sleeping.
I have had the "luxury" of going to bed at whatever time I want and waking up whenever I want. I have had the opportunity to catch up with friends back home and feel, even if just for an hour, like I'm with them, at our typical hangouts, laughing animatedly about rubbish. I've read most of the articles, pages, URLs that I so lovingly dragged and dropped into the 'Bookmarks' folder. I have had time to make masoor dal, chicken kheema and pudina chutney, among other things.
The only thing that's wrong with all this available time is that aside from the intense job application period interspersed with phases of abstinence from anything "job-like", I would much rather NOT be spending my time sleeping, cooking, watching films and singing at the top of my voice.
I'm a restless breed of workaholics. And the only thing that can keep me from going mad and driving other people loony, is having work. And by work, I don't mean cleaning kitchens and bathrooms and vacuuming the house. I'm a workaholic forced to stand at the start-ling indefinitely till the pistol fires its signal and I can chase my work down that track.
And because I am not a Yash Raj Films prodigy, I cannot just wake up one day, get a guitar and start crooning on the streets of Missoula in a fake Punjabi accent to make $500 worth of rent. That only happens to Shahrukh Khan.
In film terms, here's where I am right - I have Aamir Khan's individuality and spirit from 3 idiots, Akshay Kumar's energy from the Khiladi series, Karan Johar's tear glands, Ayushman Khurana's sense of humor and Rajpal Yadav's luck from Hungama.
I don't know if my being Indian has anything to do with this insatiable urge to work but I know it has a lot to do with just being who I am. A period of 24 years is a long enough time scale for conclusive observations. Over this time period, I've realized I have been happiest when I have had work in some significant form.
I am certainly grateful to life for this long overdue lull because it let me finally do normal stuff again without feeling like I was cheating on my assignments. But having said that, I don't think I handle the concept of 'relax' very well. After a while, I have absolutely no idea as to what on earth I'm supposed to be 'doing'. Like everything else in the world of journalism, with me, even 'funemployment' has to have a deadline. (Credit to Allison Mills for coining that term)
And now, because I know I'm going to be woken up early tomorrow morning by a phone call from my mom, I'm going to sign off for tonight.
Recreational writing after ages - another advantage of being unemployed? (Borderline pessimist....)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

DAH 301 to Washington-Grizzly Stadium: two years of graduate life start to finish.

I was 22 when I walked those six blocks to get to the Don Anderson Hall, room 301. School wasn't in session yet. It was that orientation week for new students and boy, did we need it. Fresh out of mother India, I was prepared to take this head on. Even so, not once did it strike me that on the very first day of orientation, we would have to venture out on a strange campus, find and interview strange people for our very first assignment. No rose petals, no bushes to beat around. They had come straight to the point. My life as a journalism graduate student had begun the moment I walked into that building.

For the two years that followed, "that" building took multiple forms - home, hideout, rescue center and therapy clinic among others. It was four floors of absolute madness. A madness that I now think was too short-lived.

In these last two years, I have probably learned more than I ever did before and not just in academic terms. I have never lived alone even though my personality isn't one to press the panic button, it was quite an experience. I had never lived in a place with less than a million people - for starters. Pune, my hometown, caters to about eight million people. Missoula, has about 60,000 people - a statistic I don't believe but I have to give state's census figures some credit. I'd believe someone if they said Missoula has like 2000 people. For perspective, the entire state of Montana crossed the one million population mark only last year. So Pune has about eight times the number of people in all of Montana. Yup, exactly.

I had never lived in a place where it snows for six months (modest). I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed the snow - until it got to my bones and froze the life out of me. I didn't go skiing or snow-boarding or snow-shoeing because I'm not very fond of making a complete fool out of myself. And if I must, I can do that on flat land. There's something that is so beautiful about snow that it makes you want to just stand in it, knee-deep, with your snow boots and parka on, and stare at it till your eyes dry out from the cold. I remember waking up one weekend last year, looking out the door. I felt my eyes widen and my jaw drop before I turned back, ran to get my camera and started clicking like mad as if it was all a dream that was going to go *poof* any second. That is the magic of snow. It makes a 22-year-old feel like a child inside.

The first year of graduate school was like military boot camp. Tough as hell. Long nights that spilled over into the next morning so often that I had lost the ability to keep track of day, date and time. There were no weekdays, no Mondays or Thursdays or even Saturdays. It was all just one big mass, a continual time loop where everyday was a working day and there were no holidays. Oh, holidays! The ones we did have, like winter break or spring break, were more frustrating than regular days. Three times the usual work load with at least two final papers or mid-terms due at the end. I have never felt so fluctuated in my life. Yes, that's actually a physical state of being - you'll know when you're here.

Of all the classes I took, there is only one that I wish I could somehow crumple up like waste paper and throw it out of sight. Ok, I hated it. You would too if you put an obscene amount of work into something that wasn't even your major and should have been way easier than the other PhD level course you had to get through. Oh, and if after all that jazz, you got a big dull dud of a D on it. Yuck.

I will say though, that my other classes were absolutely fantastic. To be very honest, this is the first time since being in school that I have enjoyed putting myself through physical, emotional and mental conditions that were never probably never meant for human beings. Ok, I am exaggerating it - only a tad. It has been a sweet pain. I hated papers and assignments when they would actually be due but it would be weird if I didn't. The learning experience, the opportunities to have healthy group discussions, the intellectual challenges and moreover, the people - have surpassed every expectation I could have had.

This second year has been more diverse and cooler than boot camp year. Fewer credits sure helped. Having the thesis to do did not. That's balance for you. But I had a lot more going on this year. Diversity groups, international student groups, activities, lectures, presentations, interviews, dinners, festivals, the whole shebang. A lot more spice and flavor to life this year - embedded in memory for years to come.

I'd say we have all come a long way - all of us journalism grads. - since day 1. From 2am huddles to piece a story together to walking up to a stage dressed in black gowns and caps to get our awesome (did you see the others?!) hoods from our committee chairs. All of us, with our different personalities, our different 'zing' elements, are going to go out there and make those four floors proud.

First semester Master's project proposals saw scores of transformations this year and we all came into our own. Heading out to report with all the gear, finding sources, interviews, more interviews, hours and hours of tape, piecing the story, writing up a rough outline and then - close to ten drafts of a final project that we stood up and publicly defended - successfully defended.

What a process this has been! Moreover, what a month this has been. I don't care very much for birthdays but I will say this one has been spectacular.

Thesis defense, graduation, turning 24 on a snow-covered lake-front surrounded with Montana's marvelous wilderness in the company of family. Perfect? I'd love to say yes but we all know that would be untrue.

And now, with two whole years of memories and learning behind me, I stare at a "Stop" sign on the corner of a street as the background changes from bright blue sunny skies to thick grey rain clouds within minutes.
Cars go by in either direction. Birds go about their usual business. The sun tries to peep through the clouds creating an aura of heavenly light. And me? I sit and draw out plans for my future, periodically glancing sideways at the "Stop" sign.

A sign to literally stop, look left and right, wait for traffic to pass and then enter your lane of choice carefully. Pretty much what I have to do from here on. No more school. No more classes or deadline assignments or thesis drafts or dangerously high doses of coffee.

Given current market situations and general circumstances - finding a decent job is going to be nothing short of a Himalayan expedition with limited oxygen supplies and deathly cliffs and crevices that one must avoid falling off/into.

I embarked on this expedition almost exactly 10 days ago when my identity changed from being a "Master's STUDENT in environmental journalism" to a 'Journalist'. The moment when all candidates for Master's degrees stood up as the President of the University of Montana verbally conferred our degrees on us has gone down in my history. The history of who I am. And as Jim Messina so efficiently put it that rainy morning in the Washington-Grizzly Stadium, it's always about moving "on to the next".

On to the next it is. The 'student' bids adieu as the 'journalist' emerges to stretch her wings and take flight.

Thank you to the unforgettable people who have made these two years the most memorable years of my life - you know who you are and you know you have a loyal friend, student, community member and peer in me all because you have been so darned awesome. Big shout out to y'all. My credentials may have changed but I'm still me. And we will always be 'we'.

Go Griz! (We know tributes are incomplete without serious acknowledgment of the school mascot, especially because I'm sitting in bobcat country as I write this!) ;)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

'Born' Identity - grad.student or human being?

I really shouldn't be writing this right now. As I sit on the 4th floor of the journalism building on campus and glance over my shoulder at the leafless trees and thick grey clouds in the background, I can't help but write. What I should be writing is my thesis. Instead, here I am, punching away at my keyboard with a look of serious concentration on my face like I have something important to say.
It's the last semester of my Master's degree. In less than 2 months, I will (fingers crossed) be graduating with a degree in journalism - something I would never have imagined even 3 years ago. Coming to graduate school seemed so obvious. Like the prescribed next step. That's not why I came here though.
I didn't know when I accepted the offer to be a journalism grad. student that I was signing an unofficial, invisible contract to have absolutely no life at all. My social and personal life has been all of non-existent these last couple of years and now is probably the worst time to be feeling awful about it.
In October last year, I remember strolling on the lawn outside my apartment in the evening fall breeze, talking to my dad on the phone. It's not very often that I have long, heartfelt conversations with him especially when he's on a different continent in a different hemisphere. During our chat, he asked where I liked to hang out in Missoula and what I did in my "free time". It hit me. I no longer had any idea of what 'free time' was. That aspect of life had completely eluded me for months and I hadn't even noticed.
I never hung out anywhere. My life was restricted to being on campus and being at home. Those were the only two places I had the time to be in. My days were desperately trying to expand themselves beyond the 24 hour limit and would more often than not, spill over into the next day, forming one giant mass of time with no clear demarcations. There were no weekends. Everyday was a working day. Everyday was a new deadline.
It may not be relevant but apparently Geminis are people who get bored very quickly and always need to have variety on their plate. And boy did I have variety. Four graduate level classes that were driving me insane. Whatever time I did get when I wasn't studying or writing, I was working with international student groups to put things together, or I was cleaning a house that would start to look uncannily like the pig-sty my mother always threatened me my room would look like someday.
Bottom line, I had NO idea about what were the 'cool' places to hang out in, in this tiny (compared to Pune) place in the most obscure corners of America. Naturally, these thoughts raced through my head while my dad was expecting an answer. I said I didn't have time to go exploring the city and didn't know what were the nice places to go have dinner or just meet friends. I said the only place I knew well enough was Walmart and that too, I hated.
My dad guffawed and said there was no way I was so caught up in things that I didn't have time to go out.
It's March now and I still haven't had time to go out. When I do, there's a nagging feeling poking me in the back of my head saying, "why are you not studying? You have all these things due tomorrow!" Every time I manage to hiss at that voice in my head and shut it up. In vain.
As graduation and thesis defence time gets closer every day, not to mention scarier, I keep thinking I've missed out on so much. I'm the girl who would jump at the chance of travelling hundreds of kilometers away to be with nature, see some wildlife, spend some quiet time in the forest. I've been living in Montana for almost two years now. Montana - one of the most fantastically beautiful places that exists on our planet. It's wide expanses of space, the mountains, the valleys, the snow, the rivers, the colour of the leaves and two of the coolest national parks ever - Glacier and Yellowstone. Ok, I'll admit I've been to Yellowstone twice but honestly, I get crabby if all I can see are geo-thermal spots instead of bears and wolves and bison!
Homesickness is probably one the worst feelings to have. I know I signed up for this. I know it was my decision and I honestly love what I do- learning what I have been for these 2 years and maybe it's because I am new to the American education system but the one reason that makes me look forward to graduating is that it puts me that many days closer to going back home.
Home, where my people, my family and friends and my animals live. Where time hasn't stopped because I moved away. Where people whose lives I am an integral part of are living regular, routine lives despite my physical absence. I think deep down, everyone who leaves their homes to study or work abroad has a secret hope that things will be exactly the same when they get back and nothing will have changed. But the only thing in the world that's consistently occurring, is change.
People change, places change, perceptions change, relationships change, street-side food shacks change, coastlines change and in this humdrum of regular life, you yourself - change. So at a time like this, when your thesis is in front of your eyes, and you miss home in all its glory and darkness, you feel like a complete alien. You are in a foreign land where people don't know you from scratch, where you have had to build relationships from their very basic foundations, where you've had to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road and the car, and where people are nice but not your own. You want to fit in. You want to make your ride as smooth as possible but suddenly, you're stuck. People back home now talk about you as 'that girl who used to live there' or 'our daughter who lives in the U.S.' or 'my friend who is abroad'. Over break when people at home introduce you to their acquaintances as someone 'who lives in America but is Indian'- you feel an astoundingly strong pain in your chest.
That pain, I figured out recently, is related to this flawed identity I now have. I don't want this dual identity. I don't like it. I want to be the same person I was before I left home to come here because honestly, the things that make me who I am have not changed in the slightest. I'm still me. I'm still my parents daughter and I still love my dog more than I ever thought I could.
And someday, hopefully soon, I would love not to have that guilty feeling inside me when I look at that dog's eyes and don't have the guts to tell her that she won't be seeing me again for a long time. For once, I would love to know that everyday, when I wake up, it'll be in my bed, in my house, my that four-legged canine impatiently licking me to get up and take her out. I'd love to come home to familiar smells of egg curry drifting down the three flights of stairs that lead up to my house and get frustrated with people who have no driving sense whatsoever. I know it's got its problems and I know they can really stress people out but nothing anywhere can beat the huge sense of relief when wheels of an aircraft touch down on a runway in your home country - that feeling when you know that you're headed back where you came from - originally.
And now, back to that thesis. The one thing that is my ticket to redemption. Proof to myself that I did what I took on.
To all those homesick graduates in the world, you are never alone. There are thousands of others like you out there. Good luck! :)