Friday, October 13, 2017

Of Fardles and Bon Mots

It has been a few months since I began my new job. One could say that I am settled in, though I do  remain, at heart a lit major, in spite of not having stepped into a classroom for almost a year now. I had not realized this until this past few days when a couple of events brought it to my notice. I do not yet know how I feel about it.

The first event was utter, sheer exhaustion, though one can not always call that an event. It was rather a breaking point that came on a Thursday afternoon on one of the busiest weeks my writing lab has ever seen. There were days when it would be a couple of hours before I could reach my office and check my email: I would be enveloped in student needs from the moment I'd step into my writing center. Students had the hunted, much-wept look of the lost and the displaced as they haunted the center, trying to access  their email, begging me to do some magic that would give them access to My English Lab or D2L. They hung on to their school responsibilities as though to an anchor; if their grip loosened, some sort of apocalypse would follow and they carried this desperate urgency as their most treasured cargo. If I did help them access whatever they needed, or explained a concept to them, they looked at me with gratitude of cosmic proportions, which defeated me. This is natural in a world that is left behind by a storm that closed down my State for over a week. However, we were all exhausted by the Thursday of that week. The talk was of the end of the world, how nothing was ever going to be the same. So I distributed Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" and we discussed the short story for about an hour. I had distributed the story not just to my staff but also the couple of students who remained in the writing center. Later, as I walked back to my office and the writing center began to get busy with the evening traffic, I realized that this kind of discussion was exactly what was missing from my present life. This stolen hour had adjusted my perspective and I have vowed that this would not be the last time that a story or poem is discussed in my lab. My staff, too, confessed to thinking of the story repeatedly over the next few days. Perhaps we were all lit majors at heart?

In fact, I would go far enough to say that what my colleagues and managers refer to as my managerial techniques owe their origin to my experience as faculty. Controlling discussions that do not get lost in the woods, demanding work, being intolerant of excuses yet understanding of lack of training, identifying what needs fixing, keeping records, creating schedules and planning meetings: all of these I learned as I stood alone behind the desk for decades, forever separated yet deeply connected to the people who faced me and tried to convince about twenty strangers to shift perspective and learn to analyse.

One could say that essentially, I am still doing the same job.

My friend asked me if I miss teaching and before I could even think about the question and consider it, my mouth said, "No!" The definite nature of that answer took my friend aback, I think; I, too was surprised by it. Upon reflection, in fact, I'd say that the best parts of my old job are still very much with me, while the worst, like grading, have disappeared. Yes, there are evaluations and hiring decisions, but they are nothing compared to endless oodles of ungraded assignments that had crowded my life in infinite sets of twenty each.

A couple of days ago, my Facebook newsfeed offered up a Keats ode read by Benedict Cumberbatch. I wept at the sheer beauty of the poem. I often indulge in YouTube Midsummer Night's Dream and cry at Macbeth (a play that continues to shock me). Teaching was never where I'd thought I'd end up when I decided that I was a confirmed lit major and could be nothing else. I had not really thought much about where I'd end up with a lit degree, of course. I had some nebulous idea of being a priestess in a sanctuary of words or just drinking in Prufrock under a spreading tree as the sun set behind some mountain. I had no clear idea about the actual work or ritual the routine of such a person would comprise of.

So no, I do not miss the classroom. I do miss the literature, but when I reach out for it, I find that it has not wandered away. It is right where I'd left it, beside curriculum to be assigned, files to be graded, departmental and all-school meetings to be attended, and LMS to be organized.

Ultimately, the aim of my having Read Literature seems served: it was to decorate the walls of my ivory tower so that the fardles that flesh must bear may be tolerated, conquered, and lived through.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Eating Fruit in the Dark

We are only two days away from hurricane Irma's unwelcome visit to our State. To say that it was horrible and unnerving would be a gross understatement. I feel as though I have aged a century since last Thursday, when workplaces closed down and  the declared state of emergency began to attain dimensions and reality.

I, too was carried on the wave of hysteria that washed me up before empty grocery store shelves. There was no bottled water, no paper plates or plastic ware, no bread, no canned eatables, and no sterno cans. I picked up a lot of fresh fruit (the storm was three days away, after all), some cat food, a jar of instant coffee, and the last case of eggs on the shelf. As I drove home, I wondered why the lack of bottled water bothered me. I drink tap water, do not care for the faint stale and bitter after-taste of bottled water, and I had already planned to fill up enough for me and my feline room mates. I had enough cat food for two weeks. And I knew that I would not need much food for myself.

As always, I remember the endless couple of days I had spent stuck in my grandmother's third story apartment as the city's river flowed 10 feet deep beneath our balcony. There was, of course, no electricity or running water and we spent the entire time watching broken off pieces of our familiar world stream by; a tire, tables, pots, suitcases swirled wildly in some sort of a twisted, macabre dance, refusing all recognizable functions and identities. We were not aware of the length of time spent staring. It was unreal.

This same unreality accompanied the hurricane days. This storm was larger than our State, and no one was to be spared its fury. Being so large, it moved slowly and the hours and days stretched as sheer madness churned the elements until everything outside dissolved into a primal wind soup. Inevitably, at one point, the electricity blinked off. I sat in that twilight world, in a world without time, thought, or light, not sure about what to do. I remembered the fruit in my refrigerator and began working on finishing it. This was the only focus and relevance of my entire existence. It felt bizarre, the burst of orange in my mouth, the fullness of watermelon, the richness of peach, it all felt like an undeserved, aimless gift. The relish and zing of the fruit tasted like proof of life.

Before the storm hit, I had tried to find someone to put my shutters up, but without wingnuts and a tall enough ladder, it proved to be impossible. When I found that my town was not to be a direct hit, but that we would mainly get tropical storm strength winds, I decided against boxing myself and the cats in a claustrophobic metal case; in fact, I left a window open, which kept the temperature in the house tolerable once the electricity was gone. It did feel like mad witches and ghouls dancing tornadoes outside but I think I would prefer those witches and ghouls to the sweaty, unnatural silence of shuttered up rooms. The cats and I spent the storm next to that window, on the bed, surrounded by LED torches (no candles in my home!), books, a storm radio, and the kindle. Every so often, the cell phone chirped in warning that a tornado was near. But after a while, that, too, became part of noise of the storm. The radio cackled with static and updates about feeder bands and flood warnings.

The morning never dawned but the storm turned silvery and sometimes forgot to be ferocious. It seemed that the world would never be normal, the way I remembered it. A thousand post-apocalyptic novels and settings flashed through my mind and I wondered how life would completely change once this storm was done with us. I lunched or breakfasted or dined on fruit and added some boiled eggs to my meal. I had boiled the entire case of eggs from those last frantic hours before the storm. Then I returned to the bed, returned to the waiting. Logic dictated that some time, perhaps hours, perhaps years from now, time must begin ticking again.

That was a couple of days ago, or was it yesterday? I forget. At any rate, it is past. I have not left the house in almost a week. My electricity has been restored; in fact, I did not have to miss any of my dialysis treatments and I remain unspeakably grateful for that. I am going back to work tomorrow.

As I sat at my desk, checking and responding to my email, I snacked on an orange but I did not register the zing of its taste. I could find comfort in this apparent return to normalcy. However, I wonder. The stories do not lie: can souls who have eaten chthonic fruit ever allowed a true return to the realms of the sun?

Friday, August 4, 2017

That Facebook Life

The complexity of our present times has offered us the chance to view our own realities from a veritable smorgasbord of lenses, if my patient reader will forgive the awkward synesthesia. It is possible to live an event and examine it immediately in flashback without troubling one’s memory cells.

The other day, we attended a wedding reception. The first hour of the festivities was devoted to what the hosts referred to as Recall Reels. We were treated to witty observations about the life-thus-far of first the bride, and then the groom, as various relatives of the couple took the mike to accompany the film-collage with underlying movie songs played in tandem with the pictures and live commentary. We enjoyed the first few minutes immensely. However, as the hour wore on, the pictures began to take on a monotone, not of the subject matter but of mood. These were, obviously, supposed to depict lives spent in sheer joy. Images caught people in mid-laughter, eyes sparkling at something behind or above, just out the range of our vision, hair afloat in becoming abandon. Then there were pictures of immaculately groomed children, eyes scrunched shut in concentration as they blew out birthday cake candles, flames steady, ribbons and bow ties standing to attention, adoring, clapping people surrounding the cake. Always, always, the focus of all present in the photograph seemed to be the young bride and groom. It seemed as though all through their childhood and youth, these two people’s families and friends had deliberately hoarded up a trousseau of pictures they could exhibit on their wedding day, so we would know how carefree and abundant their lives had been.

Such exhibits of perfected lives have expanded from an hour during a wedding reception, to everyday chronicles on social media sites, like Facebook. I see only exquisite views of mountains, rivers, oceans beneath a colorful sky seen through window frames; the camera always misses the sink of dirty dishes just beyond the breathtaking view. I imagine the owners of such windows as gazing out, sipping some tall, cool citrus-y drink, no dishes, floors, or counter-tops ever to be cleaned. These owners are usually accompanied in my imagination with the most perfect of friends or spouses or pets.

Most people I know, who take lots of pictures, screen their imaginary lives very carefully. Of the thousands of images they capture, only a few are deemed “Facebook-worthy.” These images do not necessarily depict a reality hitherto unsuspected by the viewer, nor do they offer an insight into the personality of the subject. On the contrary, it would seem that these images are carefully chosen to display a perfection of an imagined self, which often renders the subject unrecognizable. These people glow with satisfaction every time I exclaim at their profile picture, “Is that you? I did not even recognize you!” Apparently, this is the most appropriate reaction sought for.

I suppose it is human nature to wish to garner as much envy from one’s world as one could manage. This envy is synonymous with admiration, a trophy of some sort that assures the subjects they have arrived, worked hard and achieved the glint of I-Wish in the eyes of beholders. If, indeed, this is the aim, then it is attained. I must confess to wishing for your perfect Facebook life. I covet your excellent health, to bite a pie of the warm laughter of your gatherings, discover the exotic worlds you are always globe-trotting to; I want the top 95% you earn in all Facebook quizzes that gauge you to be among the smartest of all, hunger for all those delicious, easy-peasy recipes you share, and of course, I crave most ardently that window you gaze out of.


Beware, Perfection! As that vignette of a flawless life gets uploaded for all to see, make sure of a dot of kajal on its back (where it will not be seen) to ward off the evil eye.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Idling Wordsmith

I was scrolling down my Facebook page, as one does, often when at a loss, and I saw many people advertising their upcoming anthologies and novels. Of late, it seems to me that the world is bursting with people publishing their work.

I wonder how they manage that.

Long ago, (four years ago, actually) an Indian publisher had suggested that I write a book, their suggestion arising from one of my short stories. I thought that I had died and attained undeserving Nirvana. Fearing the chariots of time drawing ever near, I finished the book within months, full time job, failing kidneys, and graduating child notwithstanding. Every time a revision was suggested, I attacked it, conquered it, and sent back the section before suggested deadlines. I vowed to be the most agreeable, the easiest of writers anyone could dream of working with.

However, some ornery constellation stamped its feet and rather abruptly, I was told that the publisher had lost interest. No other explanation was offered. One day I had a book contract; the following day, I was anchor-less, rudder-less.

My book has been completed, revised, re-visited for years. I had tried looking for an agent and sent out about fifty letters of inquiries to various agents, my list compiled from a variety of sources (yes, including Writers & Poets!). I got nary a bite. Not A One.

And these, mind you, are agents, not publishers that I tried to approach.

Interestingly, however, whenever I have sent in sections of the book as separate stories, they have been accepted and published in magazines, no revisions asked for.

I know my work is decent, current, and fits in with what is being read. How does one jump this huge chasm between finished project and marketed product?

The person who had published my first story offered to come out with a kindle edition of my book. Of course, I have agreed. However, that constellation is still ornery, and of late, my queries are ignored. I wonder about the value that these two experiences are supposed to convey to me, but I remain at a loss. It definitely does not hearten me to know that Moby Dick was rejected 75 times.

 I have read hundreds of blogs and articles on composing the perfect query letter, choosing the right literary agencies, paying attention to the kind of material on the market, and followed a myriad of other advice. I have tried many variants and forms of query letters. I pay attention to agents that represent writers I like and whose topics match mine. These pieces of wisdom and logic assure me that agents are interested in accepting and marketing my work; after all, that is how they make money.

Perhaps then, the ones I tried are independently rich.

Perhaps I need to be independently rich and self-advertise, self-market, self-publish, self-sell, and self-buy. After all, I write for myself, not anyone else! Alas, my rather ordinary and modest circumstances, combined with my total and complete cluelessness about this process will allow no such indulgence.

My writer friend and I have agreed that it is time for us to find a proper agent for our finished projects. Of course, we have no idea how to land one. On Facebook, I see thousands of prompts that promise to stir the Muse. Many articles offer advice about how to keep writing, the importance of it. There are suggestions about places an aspiring wordsmith could disappear to, places as impossibly beautiful as a poem from a star.

I don’t think that these articles understand: I write and will continue to write because I have no choices. Inspiration is not my problem. I do not need an ivory tower to write; my sofa is quite adequate. Finishing projects is not my problem. Accepting criticism and fixing bleeding paragraphs is also not my problem, and neither is respecting deadlines.  

If only I had a spell that moved constellations! If my patient reader commands such a spell . . . However, I realize that it would be asking for much too much to share it, like asking to spare an internal organ. I do not command the words that could frame such a thing properly.

This post goes out in hopes that it will stir the stubborn stars; perhaps, lounging and floating Vishnu-like on the Milky-Way, they might read this to idle an hour by and deign to twinkle kindly.



Thursday, June 22, 2017

My 40-Hour Week

I was full time faculty, and I was tired, if I were to be completely honest. I could have conducted all that I taught without being fully awake, as though an automaton, and that was the best part of the day. Then there were the endless, pointless tasks and processes that departmental assistants and secretaries used to see to, that were suddenly my job. I have not even begun to mention the interminable grading, which made Sisyphus’ rock rolling seem like a picnic. My schedule changed every several weeks, and I’d have days off that coincided with no one else’s, during which I would watch television or haunt my house as though a ghost. No one else had time off in late September for a week and I would be too exhausted to do much. Yes, being full time faculty can be exhausting, even though work-week seems to be only 25 hours long. I worked non-stop, almost 60-hour weeks, but since I did most of that work at home, it did not “count.”

 I thought that was my lot in life; things could never change.I had been faculty almost all my working life until I was RIFed from my last faculty position and decided to walk out of the classroom. Even though I soul-searched extensively and it took me a long time, I have ended up not too far from the classroom: I coordinate a writing center.

However, my insistence on trotting away from the classroom has demanded many changes, so many, in fact, that my internal compasses are different, with unfamiliar directions and strange needles. I navigate by different constellations and I cannot even imagine the nature and composition of my new horizons.

If someone were to ask me what my daily duties are, I’d not have a clear answer. I coordinate. This means that I do whatever needs to be done, and that is a surprisingly large range. I began without any training, without a clue about what was expected from me, with no idea about how to do my job, let alone how to do it well. I had had no management training, did not know how to balance a budget, create a schedule from scratch, oversee staff, or how to troubleshoot or navigate online lab platforms. Even this LMS was not familiar to me. The only thing I really understood properly was the curriculum around which the writing center revolves.

It turns out that is anchor enough as the world whirled and stood on its axis. One of my major navigational tools is Excel, something my old self had steered clear of. In my old job, I had needed just a little screen to explore the world and sculpt it into material for class; now, I cannot work without my double screened computer, and yet the material resists sculpting. As faculty, I had despaired of meaningless paperwork and forms; now, I create forms and document meticulously. As faculty, I used to feel much put upon when asked to generate reports; now, I seek out training that would help me mine and analyze substantial chunks of data. As faculty, I had felt isolated on my side of the desk and had considered myself apart from the people I spent most of my work day with, students. Now, I work on team building exercises and conduct regular meetings to be as much a part of my staff and colleagues as I can. My 25-hour week used to cling on, follow me home, and eat into weekends and evenings, especially during exams; now, my 40-hour week, though tiring, ends when I leave my office. Now, exam weeks are the best, since most of the work of the semester is done and things begin to slow down. As faculty, I sought out creative ways of presenting the same material; now, I seek out recognizable formats for ever-changing information, for precedents that reassure.

Even the very rhythm of my work-seasons is different. The time between semesters, in my old life, was a time to reflect, calm down, gather threads and reweave. Now, the time between semesters is fraught with furious activity, as I race to organize over a hundred class orientations, update orientation folders to adjust to changes in online labs, juggle ever-changing requests for schedule changes, and see to a myriad of other tasks before the semester begins.

I do miss my students a great deal; I do miss talking about timeless stories and the many ways they can be interpreted; I do miss students discovering the beauty of the written word; I do miss treading well-loved, well-worn paths. I feel that I have aged suddenly and aged far; constant contact with the young had kept me believing in my own youth. Being a manager of sorts, on the other hand, does make one the grown-up. As faculty, one might be a figure of authority, but it is not a managerial position. Now, even though I have my office, I feel more like a juggler than a person with any authority.

All things considered, however, my office has grown on me. I have begun to slice and stash things into tables and sheets. Most importantly, I am learning to decode implications when anyone speaks to me. I am more aware that all conversation has a context, a subtext, and an agenda. This is changing the way I write my characters and what they say, when I indulge in my first love, writing stories.  

I am told that this job gets easier after a couple of years. That is my hope, to find a terra firma beneath my feet, so that these paths also feel well-trod to my hesitant steps. It is rare that one gets a chance to be reinvented in the exact middle of one’s expected life-time.

 It is my hope that this overhauling will assure me that there have been less roads not taken when, at last, I consider how my light is spent.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Tornado Skies, Rainbow Weather


We had “bad” rains a couple of days ago, deluges that streamed down from an invisible, grey heaven, spreading floods and fear. This went on for days, which felt more like a punishment than a benediction. The air remained damp and cool. The sun remained a memory of warmth; the constant, insistent downpours conquered all, spoke above all conversations and TV shows, and turned the world into that indescribable color, that silver-grey-white. Visibility was low and we all hunkered down in cars and rooms in isolated bubbles, convinced that our range of visibility, our ten-foot radius was all that remained of the world. The unthinkable happened when malls were closed for flooding. Cars, branches, and other paraphernalia of a dry, logical world floated around, defunct, wet and lost, unable to find a use or definition.

We did not venture out unless forced. We cautioned each other on Facebook to stay in, stay dry, stay safe. My fingers and knees complained and the cats whined. Had the sun not shone when it did, we all would have begun to climb the walls in sheer cabin fever. We shudder at the memory.

We ran out of staples, of milk, bread, and eggs, but put off going out. We reminded ourselves to replenish our stock of batteries and water; we tallied our bank accounts to see if this is the year we’d get a generator (perhaps next year!). We dined on canned soup and canned beans and relished the hot water of our showers. The grocery list on our fridge began to fatten with perishables that could weather well. The sight of the empty peanut-butter jar began to cause discomfort. It was June; why didn’t we have our stock of crackers and sterno stoves? We stared wide-eyed at each other: how was this possible? Had we not just begun to get used to writing 2017 in our dates? How could half the year be gone?

Our TV’s, when they worked, were locked in at local weather stations; no other news mattered until the torrents stopped. We followed each shade of severity as the TV screen followed the storms moving inland and away, anchored our gaze on the point where we imagined we were. We stopped stitching and turned the burners on low when the weather was updated on top of the hour, and we listened. Our worried gaze sometimes shifted to the skies and we saw that green tinge that marks illogically heavy storms. We gasp when we hear that a tornado was observed in our zip code. Surely, the apocalypse must feel like this!

It is after June 1. Seasonal visitors have left for calmer latitudes. Here, where I write this, the hurricane season has begun and Sunshine State becomes a misnomer. It is one of my favorite times of the year. Perhaps it is the cathartic rains, the seriously blooming verdure, the shortened commute to and from work, and the empty grocery stores. The closet performer in me loves the drama of the storms. I have been fortunate in calling this landscape my home for long enough to know its skies well. This is the season of daily, multiple rainbows. Somehow, it is difficult to remain morose when faced with two well-defined rainbows arching above the highway.

This same splash of color spills through the landscape. Gulmohar trees burst out in flower flames. Hydrangeas bloom in a veritable rainbow. The entire vegetative world erupts in a cornucopia of colors and textures, and everything smells freshly cleansed. People bring out their colorful attire, sporting bold hues that shy away as the year gets older. Monsoon here feels like a celebration, since the children are out of school, home from colleges, visiting with families. This season feels full of promise, like a slice of fresh watermelon sprinkled with chaat masala, best served on ice. And yes, reader, it is mango season! This season is rich in color and flavor, and the rest of the year seems pale in compare.

The torrents have stopped for now. It still rains everyday, but there is no cosmic drama the skies indulge in. Of course, I pray that we are spared from a hurricane, even if it by the skin of our teeth. It is not the devastating aftermaths of hurricanes that I enjoy. But I find it difficult to resist the silvery shade of a rainy day in a season filled with blinding color and heat.


This weekend, I shall prepare my home for tornadoes, and I shall try not to miss any rainbows that are all part of this prothalmion of a season. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Endings and Beginnings

I cannot think of a better day to begin writing on my blog than today; today is Akha Teej, the auspicious day of beginnings, one of the four holy days of the Hindu calendar.  So let me begin by wishing my readers good beginnings in all they start today!
It has been four months since I began my “new” job. Followers of this space might remember that I was heart-broken at losing my previous job of 17 years. Actually, I was so heart-broken, that I stopped looking for full-time faculty positions altogether. The one I’d lost was the perfect faculty job, I had done it well, and I was fortunate enough to lose it before it soured or got old. I had my perfect job, and I had enjoyed it for over a decade and half. I remain grateful, and yes, Reader, a part of my heart still yearns for it. I fear it always will.
Now, I coordinate the Writing Center at one of the campuses of my county’s college. It is a job that demands completely separate skill sets than the ones I had been using all my adult life. Much to my surprise and delight, I am loving it! I never expected to be happy as a manager of sorts, but I learn something new every day, and another piece of a large puzzle falls in place, giving me a whole new perspective on the landscape of an educational institution, a landscape I’d thought I knew well, too well. I have also taught at this college briefly and now that I see this side of process, I will never be the same again.
Yes, clocking in 40 hours a week feels just as strange as not having to work at home, both to me and my feline roommates. But it is growing on us. I knew that in an alternate life, I’d be running a Writing Center; now I really am doing it! Of course, my vision for a Writing Center was very different from this very real one. But as days go by, this vision becomes more focused, more possible. One day, the gods willing, I will have the Writing Center of my imagination. Of course, a lot of credit for my loving my new job goes to the people I work with, my supervisors, colleagues, and staff, who are all warm and helpful. Besides that, however, the work itself is new and challenging.
I did not mean to only sing accolades to my two jobs, though this entry seems to primarily do that. I hope that my Reader takes heart from my story; if something that seems apocalyptic happens and everything ends, there is still the grain of the coming morrow contained within; one only has to believe in the inexorability of the heartbeat and breath. They keep rhythm with the march towards future seasons.
According to Hindu myth, today, one of the seven immortals, Ved Vyas began The Mahabharata. I want to keep the messages it embodies in my mind today. I want to be courageous enough one day to be able to trust in the impermanent, malleable nature of all realities, and still recognize the grain of a beginning in all endings. I have written from the perspective of Satyavati, Ved Vyas’ mother, and I will keep her ability to adapt and her insistence on sculpting the ways in which she adapts.

And no matter how frightening it is, I will be brave enough to put one foot in front of the other and trust the Earth to hold it steady.
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