To me, ideas are like appetizers. Strike that. To me, ideas are like those little taste samples at Costco. To all my Indian readers, Costco is like a giant Big Bazaar, where they often hand out tiny hot samples of their food (they also sell amazing hot dogs with a soda for $1.50!). You rarely end up buying the full blown version of the frozen chicken enchiladas you just ate but a lot of times the tiny morsel makes me think of something else you’d like to buy or helps you remember something you forgot to buy. Sometimes the value of an idea is not in whether people believe in it or not. Value lies in the ability of an idea to make people hungry for something. Value often lies in the questions and concepts that result from a given idea.
That being said, I’d like to present a tiny new dish for you today.
This Friday, October 30, I’m going to try a cracked out version of my 30-day challenges, Project PUSH Forward. For those of you not familiar with these challenges, every now and then I like to create 30-day experiments for myself. In the past, I've become vegetarian for a month (which led to me being vegetarian for a year), cooked everything I ate for a month, ran two miles a day for a month, sent two personal emails a day for a month and a bunch more. Over the years, I've learned more about myself through these challenges than anything else I’ve experienced. They’re not about depriving myself and they're not about testing my discipline. They’re about isolating a part of my life and becoming conscious about it. They're about being extreme for a short amount of time in the hopes of finding a long-lasting balance.
So the newest challenge? I’m going to keep score of my life for a month (smile). Hey, don’t laugh. Hear me out. Here’s how it’s going to work:
I sat down a while back and made a list of buckets that daily activities would fit into. For example, playing basketball would fit under the ‘Fitness’ bucket and cooking would fall into a ‘Food’ bucket. I came up with 8-10 buckets. Then using the buckets as a starting point, I brainstormed a lot of the common activities I do. For example, the ‘Fitness’ bucket has ‘playing basketball’ and ‘going for a run’ in it and the ‘Finance’ bucket has ‘taking a taxi’ in it. I then went through the list and categorized each activity as either positive (which I call PUSHes forward) or negative (which I call pull backs). Positive activities are actions that are productive (don’t think of productivity in the traditional sense. To me going out for drinks and being social is productive, so is therefore positive. Going out for drinks and drinking so much I lose half of the next day feels like a step back and is, therefore, negative.). I’m going to spend the rest of the week deciding on point values for each activity. From Friday onwards I’m going to keep track of my actions during the day and tally my positive and negative points at the end of each day.
As robotic as this all sounds, the challenge is going to make me decide how to spend my time. It's going to force me to think about the opportunity cost of my actions and although that's not incredibly sexy, I think it's going to cut out a lot of things I do subconsciously and don't actually enjoy that much and free up more time for fun shit!
So what's the motivation? We live in an age where we have become so overwhelmed with future goals and talking about what's on the horizon that we are rarely are in the moment anymore. What's up with that? We complain about our situation instead of taking the tiny steps needed to move towards our goals. We also go through the motions of so many things in our lives. This is my attempt to be more conscious of those things in my life. It's an attempt to stop talking about the life I want to live and instead to be proactive with small steps each day towards actually living that life.
I've included some of the buckets and actions I've come up with below. I plan on adding to the list throughout the week. You're all welcome to join the madness too. You got till Friday to come up with buckets and activities to fill the buckets. I'll post my updated list on Friday and we'll see where this craziness leads.
And remember, this is not about depriving myself of actions. I'm not trying to become lame! Negative things are necessary. This is about balance. Whether you want to join or not, I hope this was at least a little snack to whet your appetite.
Exploring: visiting art galleries, seeing a new part of town, photography,
Fitness: playing basketball, going on a run
Language: studying Hindi, studying Kannada
Martha Stewart: cleaning the house, doing laundry before all the clothes are dirty
Reading: books, the paper, blogs
Writing: blog posts, short stories, personal emails
Finance: taking a taxi when I don’t need to
Fitness: napping during the day,
Eats: drinking enough to cut way into the next day, eating right before going to bed
I sat on the bus ride from Bangalore to Puttur (a small town near Mangalore) and thought hard about life. Somewhere along the 8 hour ride, I fell asleep and woke up to a faint sunrise and the familiar billboards painted with Konkani-sounding last names near the main Puttur bus stand. A short rikshaw ride later I was laying down next to a bunch of family and faded to sleep to the chatter of them catching up on the events of the last few days. I woke up a few hours later to the sounds of one very special little person. One of the main motivations for moving to India was to have a connection to the next generation of kids in my family. Last time I visited, my cousin's daughter didn't recognize me at all!I jumped out of bed and jumped into the family room. She kinda looked up at me with super droopy sleepy eyes and super curly hair. I reached into my backpack and pulled out the pink butterfly wristband I had gotten her months before in anticipation of seeing her. She screamed with the kind of excitement that only a 3 year old year could muster, "BUTTTTTTTTERFLY!" and then laughed and smiled a lot. Her grandma asked her if she recognized me and she said, "GULLIMAAAM." (My nickname is Gulli and maam means uncle).
Bout an hour later I was sitting out on the stoop. When I'm older, I hope to have a stoop half as amazing as this stoop. It has a 3-person bench swing that's surrounded by lush garden plants and overlooks a bright red clay field that's circled by coconut trees. Next to me was a woman that might as well be my third grandma. I sat and read a magazine as she strung together a bunch of jasmine flowers for her hair. Between our individual activities we chatted about our favorite things to cook and eat. She gave me lots of old school cooking advice and I filled her in on some of the San Ramon Kamath home brews and kitchen remixes. We also complained about how some people just totally mess up certain recipes. I kinda felt like an old grandma for a little bit. It was awesomely weird. In one of the rooms in the house, her husband is bedridden and not doing so well. I still remember when he was the lion of their family. When I was super little, he would hold my hand and walk me into the middle of town. He seemed to know everyone along the way.
My plan for the rest of the trip was to enjoy the festivities for Ganapathi Chathurti, a Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Lord Ganesha. There were so many great moments on that Sunday of poojas. Families that hold poojas in their homes will sculpt their own Ganeshas out of clay. The level of detail in the sculptures is always amazing and this year it was pretty cool to see that the next generation of kids had taken over a lot of the sculpting process. There was delicious food and lots of relatives. There was an overwhelming sense of community everyone around town. The list of cool shit is quite long. I may or may not remember all of that. What I will remember though is something that happened at the very end of the night.
The day had begun around 5am for most people. Most people had helped build something, cook something, move something or partaken in some other odd job. People were exhausted and it must have been around 11pm. There was a pooja for my immediate family and I went up to the altar to accept the fruits and flower offerings. Whenever I get something in a temple, I quickly hand it over to my aunt because I don't know what to do. She's quite a woman. She's always making sure that EVERYONE else eats or everyone else is taken care of before she worries about herself. I handed her the platter and she took a banana for herself. It might not sound that crazy but she really never takes anything for herself without offering it to someone else first. She turned around, walked over to the servant that was sitting in the corner (hidden away from most people. she had been working hard since the morning too) and gave her the banana. I've seen a few home owners offer their servants food but I've never seen someone offer a servant an offering from a pooja. I felt pretty proud of my aunt.
India's not about perfection. It's a country that forces you to evolve and adapt and adjust to find happiness. If you don't allow yourself to be flexible, you're not going to survive. I have to remind myself of that almost everyday as something or other is always frustrating the hell out of me. I have to remind myself that it's about appreciating the everyday magic that only happens in simple interactions.
We ate dinner and everyone went off to bed. I walked back down the dark narrow corridor between houses. My family has lived in that house for generation after generation and I thought about how many people had walked the same path.
The rainwater had built a shallow puddle in front of our house. The water washed some of the dirt off that had build up on my feet. I stood there with no shoes on. Feet were all dirty and wet. For the first time I forgot about my shoes. I looked out into the courtyard, turned off the patio light and went to bed.
I've been having fun going out and exploring some of the nightlife here. When your outlets and your social scene become the same space though, it's usually not a good thing. So this lack of outlets at the moment got me thinking about the places in my life that help me release.
If you had to name 5 places that you consider your personal sanctuaries (places of peace, places of intense rest, places to refresh) , what would they be? What do they have in common?
I'm excited to ask people here this question because I have no idea what they're going to say. Older folks might say their temple or ashram but I don't understand yet where younger people go to recenter themselves. I'm kind of scared that they won't have an answer or that they're going to say something messed up.
I've been thinking about my list the last couple days. Here it is:
Two of my sanctuaries, interestingly enough, are temples. My family in India visits one of the temples every morning (as they've done for over a hundred years). It's quiet and people don't bother you to make donations. One corner of the temple is outside and surrounded by palm trees. I like to sit out there during the day and just take the day in. I've only been to the other temple a few times but it has the same intense quiet feel to it. You can hear yourself move around and if you sit still, you can hear yourself breath. Neither temple actively asks you to donate and the priests are super laid back.
I thought I would lead with the temples, since I'm in India. The rest of the locations on the list come from back home.
Two of the remaining three are taquerias (are you surprised?). Pollo Vagabundo (Elmhurst, Illinois) and Angela's Burrito Style (Chicago, Illinois). Carlos' food at Pollo has made me happy in my worst moods. I usually get up four or five times to hit the salsa bar. I believe in the healing properties of his salsa. After eating, I go to the counter and talk to him about life for a little bit and then head out totally refreshed. I've written about the other taqueria before. Guerzo, the owner of Angela's, became part of my family in Chicago. His taqueria was right down the street and we would talk about all sorts of stuff when I was in there. Both places were such escapes from my normal life.
The last sanctuary is a basketball court. There is one particular court in my hometown that I've spent years of my life on. My buddy David and I joke that no other humans have spent as much time on that court as us! (it's true!). I started playing ball on the court when I was 5 or 6 and it's still one of the first places I go to when I go home. So many conversations and memories about life have gone down there.
There's something about each place that quiets my mind and makes me feel free. I hope I find some new places in my journey out here. So, what are your sanctuaries?
I wish I made that up but I didn't. The concept was brought up during a class discussion back in the day and was apparently profound enough to stick in my head this long. The statement is not all that accurate though.
Here's another attempt:
"Our eyes are basically a peephole through which we view the world. The collection of our direct experiences and the narratives we've been offered by the people around us create the back story with which we define what it is we're seeing, feeling, and interacting with at any given moment."
From a window to a peephole is better but I'm still not too excited about it. Sounds kinda like a stripclub peephole too with booty bouncing on the other side. It doesn't quite express the extent to which, whether we accept it or not, we're shortsighted about the world either.
So here's the EXCLUSIVE remix to the remix:
"Our eyes are basically a pinhole (damn, that's tiny right?) through which we view the world. Everything we're able to see through this tiny hole is initially colorless and blurry. The collection of our direct experiences and the narratives we've been offered by the people around us create the back story with which we're able to color in little by little and bring focus to what it is we're seeing, feeling, and interacting with at any given moment."
Wow. That's a lotta words. Here's the cliffnotes version:
"We decide how to define and take action on things around us based on what we have personally experienced and when we're inexperienced at something, we rely on the stories we've been told about the something."
I am constantly thinking about this simple idea because it makes so much sense. A seemingly illogical action taken by someone around us, is perfectly logical to them based on their experience. Also, people around me have been through all sorts of interesting shit. Maybe I could learn something from them!
Marinating on this idea has made me realize that we all interact with the world with a sort of personal tunnel vision based on our preconceived notions. The readily available cure? Listening to people and allowing them to color and bring focus (for better or worse) to an otherwise drab landscape.
1) First in Flight:
I've been to Bachpe Airport (near Mangalore, India) enough times to know that it's terribly small. Small enough to ask passengers to step directly onto the tarmac when landing. During lunch with an elderly relative, we began talking about his childhood. He smiled and said, "I remember the day that Bachpe airport first opened. Nehru was to be the first passenger on the first flight landing at the airport. I took three or four buses and a few boats to get there from Udupi. I didn't even make it on time but I do remember one thing clearly: There were a few car accidents because everyone was staring up at the sky. People had never seen a plane before!"
He went from never seeing a plane to reading the news on the internet everyday today.
2) Under the Covers:
I got to know a girl a while back that I found quite amazing. She was cute, had a great personality, and a great sense of humor. My favorite thing to talk with her about was poetry. She had this passion for poetry that made me want to sit and really contemplate what the writer was trying to say.
She danced in college too. I think she was in one of those cultural shows. She talked about her friends a lot. She spent her free time running and biking around town.
She never seemed to let any guys get close though. I never really understood and kinda wrote her off as a hater. In reality through, she had been sexually abused by a family friend when she was in high school. That experience had altered her view on so much. Continual self image issues and guilt issues over the things that happened. She seemed to feel like it was her fault. It affected everything she tried to do. I hope she's doing really well today. She's pretty awesome.
3) Table for Two:
"We'll seat him outside," one of my relatives said from deep inside her house. She was referring to the Muslim driver that had brought my family to her house. In this rather turbulent town in Kerala, Muslims and lower caste people are not invited into homes. "Then, you can seat me outside too," was my dad's response, who then ate dinner with the driver on the front porch.
4) Taqueria Therapy:
It's no secret that I love taquerias. In the two years I lived in Chicago, I hit up my neighborhood taqueria hundreds of times. To fall in love with a taqueria, it not only needs pretty damn good food but it needs to have personality. Guerzo, the middle-aged, Mexican owner of this spot is what sold me. Over the years, he's seen me in more emotional and mental states than probably anyone else in Chicago. Rough days at work. Life getting me down. Late night drunk eats. I slowly got to know Guerzo, his son and even met his granddaughter. I had never really sat down with him though and asked talked to him about his life.
It happened to be a really slow night on one of my last nights in Chicago. I told Guerzo to sit down with me while I ate and I told him about my plan to move to Bangalore. I told him about the business opportunity and lifelong dream. I also told him how I felt responsible to stay connected to my family in India (and the small towns we're from). Something resonated with him. I asked him if he was worried about his son losing touch with Mexico. Guerzo flashed his usual half smile, half "I'm deep in thought" expression. He began describing the town he grew up in. It was a tiny town just outside of Mexico City.
Hearing the cultural differences between Mexico City and his town reminded me so much of the contrast between Bangalore and our town. If I gave you a written description of the town my family's from and the town Guerzo is from and removed language differences, I think you'd have a hard time telling them apart.
5) Truth Fed Beef:
"Sai Baba of Shirdi (Unknown - October 15, 1918), also known as Shirdi Sai Baba, was an Indian guru and yogi who is regarded by his followers as an incarnation of God. Some of his Hindu devotees believe that he was an incarnation of Shiva or Dattatreya."
I've seen Shirdi Sai Baba's photo up in so many Indian homes. I have no idea about his history or what it is he did. I do know that people worship him like a God. You know what I've never heard about him though?! That's he was a practicing Hindu and Muslim!!
"In his life and teachings he tried to embrace and reconcile both faiths: Sai Baba lived in a mosque, was buried in a Hindu temple, embraced Hindu and Muslim practices, and taught using words and figures that drew from both traditions."
Eat it Hindu and Muslim extremists!
The last two days I've heard stories about dealing with an alcoholic dad, growing up in a biracial family, hiding relationships from your conservative parents, communication mishaps with a girlfriend, an immigrant's first impressions of America, and how scary typhoid used to be. All stories from friends I was kickin' it with and people around me.
We're all inherently different. Hearing the differences, as wacky as it sounds, helps us understand the people around us and understand ourselves better. It takes a conscious effort to not just accept what we're hearing as truth but to marinate on experiences and stories and decide for ourselves how the story applies to our lives.
Once in a while though our tiny pinhole viewers actually overlap. We find familiarity in the most unlikely person or thing. I think that's what humanity is: the common threads that are always there but often take a little deeper digging to uncover. Digging past the iphones, the ipods, the twitter, the facebook status messages. Past the makeup, the jewelry, and stunner shades. Past the Hills, the Kardashians, and reality TV. Only essentials are left. We're left with me and you, trying to understand each other through tiny pinholes with our experiences and stories.
So here's a challenge. What if we spent a day or even a week consciously trying to find the overlap of the pinholes instead of the obvious differences?
I'll be around for a month or so before I roll to the Motherland and hope to be writing more often. Thanks for all the love! Please feel free to comment on this post with your own experiences or short stories you've heard.