Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Carry That Weight (a long time)

As much as there is wrong in the world, it's still perfect - beautiful in its existence and possibility.  

With out sickness, war and poverty man would be a robot; love and light would have no meaning.  We would be indifferent to nature and kindness.  Our purpose and work would vanish along with our free will - the will to do good in the face of all odds.  To care when no one cares.  To brush ourselves off, get dressed and go to work with our head raised high.  Even as everything collapses and the dirt of the world works hard to break us.  Somehow, the chosen few carry on.  

I have seen it in Haiti, after the earthquake.  In Colombia, amidst vengeful civil war.  In Zambia and other parts of sub-saharan Africa, with the everyday holocaust that is the Aids epidemic.  

Some people call this hope.  I don't.  It's not hope that motivates these people; it's the joy of expressing your will upon a situation that is supposed to defeat you.  It takes a brave person to fight the odds, to know with certainty, that certainty is not on their side.   

How difficult it is to accept this simple truth.  How unconsolable we get in the face of obstacles and tragedy.  If we only just remind ourselves that things are the way they are supposed to be, though our work is to make them, and ourselves, just a little bit better through our humanity, grace, dignity.  

The truly great are not products of their environment.  Where every indicator points to them becoming X, they somehow become Y.  Call them mutants; I call them human, truly human.     

Prison made Malcolm, Malcolm X.  It hardens most; breaks many.  But it made him, him.  And his truth thundered.    

Burdens strengthen, burdens break.  But you'll never truly live if your not grateful to carry that weight.  Most of us, our world, mediocre people, they spend their lives running from this.  They want the comforts of carelessness.  They want to be free though they forget that "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."  

And that was an Orwellian quote, if I ever heard one. 

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Half a Home

Part 1 

There are few things sadder than an arrival, after such a long journey, with no one to receive you.  Rishi stood alone amidst the crowd outside Indira Gandhi Airport.  Taxis came forth and people slowly, in practical fashion, filed into them.  Other people met family, kissed children, smiles everywhere. 

But for Rishi there was no family nor the pomp or celebration of years past, when he would arrive with his mother and father, to everyone's embraces; the airport terminal turned carnival; flower garlands and laughter; hugs and tears of joy.    

Return was a cherished event coupled with the visceral impact of the Indian heat.  And the colors:  As if a switch had been turned on to the kaleidoscope, merry go around and roller coaster – all at once.  Though now, disheveled and with nobody around he knew, Rishi felt the ache only nostalgia gives.  His stubbled face held an empty expression, looking for solace in some strangers face, though everyone unaccompanied waited for their taxi with distracted unease, looking at their cellphones.  Airports can make you feel so, alone.     

At the luggage carousel, he felt his spirit turn; he hadn't expected such intense sadness.  He had a feeling nobody would show.  His mother said she had informed the family though something about the way she said it made him think twice. 

Now outside, he still looked around.  Perhaps someone had come?  Maybe it was a mistake?  Of course, a natural mistake, with the time difference and all.  

Back home, in his parent's Queens apartment, the time difference used to be ingrained through the two clocks upon the mantle; one Indian the other New York time.  He could never look at one without looking at the other, even outside the house; he would always know exactly what time it was in India.

The clocks were a constant reference point for Rishi's father, who would work overtime in the 70s to make one 5 minute phone call a week, to hear distant voices that haunted his memories and dreams.

Rishi's father was a man's man; rarely shed a tear, generally unexpressive.  But those phone calls were what he lived for.  The rest of the time was just in anticipation of that moment or in planning a return visit.  Gifts constantly collected, life was suspended till that very moment of return - in the airport terminal- when life truly bloomed, transforming Rishi's father; from a man who read the New York Times in brusque silence; watched Peter Jennings in a trance, into someone who had purpose again; India, family.

Whenever things got tough, his father planned a trip; it slowly became the solution to all problems.  And it worked.  Upon returning, for months, his father would have renewed energy to pay bills and go to work, only to slow down again, get into a rut and plan another trip.  India, India.  Repeat ad infinitum.  Not a bad life.  

New York was purgatory, a grand waiting game, for that moment of return.  His father enjoyed New York; it mesmerized with its energy, opportunity and edge.  But something about being in- between, in the greatest city on Earth (he sincerely believed this) made him feel more alive to everything.  In but not of it - nowhere and everywhere at the same time.  Debilitating for some, exhilarating for others.       

His father had come over on scholarship, to study at NYU for his masters in Math, and stayed on to work and gain citizenship, the typical immigrant story of its time.  But he was never at ease in this new dreamland, even though nobody waxed more poetic about it; about the subway; the 5th avenue library; the jazz clubs in the village; the New York Times, even.

And then Rishi was born, unexpectedly, or so his father said, after they started frequenting Atlantic City, leaving his sister with family friends.  His father gambled while his mother walked the boardwalk, and "that's where you were conceived, Lucky 7", referencing Rishi's year of birth; 1977.

Given his father's eccentricities, he wasn't sure if this was some joke or not.  His parents did obsess over Atlantic City; it's was almost always where they wanted to go whenever a long weekend came.  But he never really saw his parents touch, so it heartened him to think of time when they did.  Whether or not it was true, the very idea of them together made him happy.  His mother in a sari by the Jersey shore, holding his father's hand, as they looked over at the sunset.  Care free, gambling, eating together.  Probably not true, but hey, who knew?  He asked his mother about it once and she just laughed.  But then she laughed whenever his father did anything crazy because if he wasn't doing anything crazy he got depressed.  He closed the lights in the living room, put a blanket over his head and never spoke to anyone for days.   And then he'd watch old Benny Hill episodes on VHS and this one dance video of Sridevi, over and over.  We all have our unique ways of coping with our frustrations and losses.  But these episodes were intermittent and if they got really bad, there was always India if something didn't pique his interest first.   

Like how one day, after school, his father gave him a cutting of a restaurant review from the New York Times.  It was written in that floral style only the Times gets away with.  "Read this article, look at how they divine they make it sounds."  Divine, his father had taken to improving his vocabulary during Rishi's SAT preparation but had retained his loose pronunciation and grammar. 

"We must go there, we must eat there, right now right now!"  He got into the car, revved the engine and blasting the horn to make Rishi hurry.  Rishi would feel a mad rush of energy and joy in those spontaneous moments.  His father thrived on unpredictability.  "Surprises, good surprises, are a precious thing.  Our lives generally have bad surprises but good surprises make up for the bad ones."  

His father was different than the other Indians, less "practical" and too showy, with tastes a bit too refined for a new immigrant.  Though he earned no more than his colleagues, he spent more, and feared less.  Looking at old pictures of his father you always noticed the well-dressed handsome man amidst tackiness and anxiety.  The corduroy blazer, the disco shirts and gold chains.  It's as if his father belonged on the Amalfi coast, with movie stars, instead of ugly modernist Queens with a bunch of square engineers as neighbors, colleagues and friends.  All Indian, all so uncool.   

Rishi always wondered what it was that made his father different than the rest, and with age, and some life experience, realized it was because his father was already quite well to do before coming to America.  He was the main breadwinner for his joint family and as a result the go-to man for all problems.  Money, prestige, respect, and already married to Rishi's mother; he had it all.  Only to leave it behind for a dream - or was it ambition?

"I wanted to study and come see what all the fuss was about," he said to him looking at him through the rearview mirror.  Rishi in the backseat, his mother up front organizing the tapes in the glove compartment, "Why doesn't anyone put the tapes back in the right covers?"  This was a pet peeve of hers, though nobody ever listened.

His father usually opened up driving, on those trips to Atlantic City, with the New Jersey Turnpike spiced by Bolly wood soundtracks.  It was as if the road ahead and the movement made him relax and look Rishi directly in the eye, albeit through the rear view mirror.  

It was on these trips that he learned that his father rented not a room, but a dirty mattress on Roosevelt Ave, for 8 hours a day.  He worked nights at a candy store, and took over the mattress from someone else, on his return, from a person about to do exactly what he just did; a low paying shift if not in a candy store, in a gas station or restaurant. 

His father could have gone back to India, and everything would have been fine.  He wasn't from a small village, or supporting a family, or any of that sacrificial stuff that paralyzes or motivates many a immigrant.  It was curiosity and adventure that drove him.  The same spirit of adventure that was bringing Rishi back, to India.   

Being of Indian origin allowed him to feel connected to something more authentic than his drab American life.  He saw in his Indian family a love and spontaneity few had in America.  The absence of absurd consumer comforts made them stronger, healthier and more alert to the visceral aspects of life.  Or, so he thought, in his romantic escapism. 

We all want to be somewhere else, and that far off place helps us make sense of what home means to us.  For Rishi, his depression about America was always a result of having India to compare it to.  It became a deeper fissure, an unwashed wound, that as he got older, held him back from ever being comfortable with who he was; where he was.

Rishi's father understood all this.  He knew that excesses and absurdities of the West could only be curbed and tempered by the East.  That is why he wanted Rishi to fall in love, with India - but as an American.  "India needs a De Tocqueville" he would absurdly say.  Rishi didn't expect such highbrow, political philosophy from his father.  That's what the New York Times did to him.  It made him memorize trite phrases that surprisingly worked within the context of what he was talking about.   "America is the greatest son, trust me.  The opportunities, dignity and possibilities.  The endless possibilities of being.  You don't know how lucky you are, you have choices, and options, that I never fathomed or thought about.  The problems in America are a result of bad choices.  Eating too much, drugs, sex, over-spending, but at least people have the choices and the second chances to make it right.  In India there are no second chances.  People are condemned to their fate, and lament and whither away wondering what could have been, if only, if only..."    

These diatribes were a common fixture in Rishi's upbringing, often colored by his father's constant unease for those he left behind.  Not guilt, just plain and simple longing.  If family defines a man's life, little else can substitute it.  If his father every knew love, or was ever pressed to describe it; it would be this one desire; to return to touch again his land and people. 

Rishi knew this meant more to him, than being with himself and his mother.  In this regard they were similar to families of artists, rocks stars or politicians, all of whom work for something bigger than themselves, only in Rishi's father's case, what filled that god-shaped hole was a huge, poor country, on the other side of the world, filled with smiling, adoring, pandering family.  Family.

Saturday, September 04, 2010


The awkward moments come in the morning, as the sun comes in through
the window, and I become aware of our nakedness. I try to leave the
light on at night as long as possible, before she says to turn it off.
In the dark, an animal feeling comes over me, I feel taken over by a
mystical force. With the light on I am human, and I stop, remember,
who I am and not what I am a part of. I know this is some great
cosmic dance and in the wave of it, I connect to something I know is
always around me. The sadness, the melancholy felt in the morning is
why we are not part of this feeling more often. We like to be
reminded of this genius, through music, art, and the other expressions
of harmony and perfection, though it would be better to be a part of
it. To live it. It may just be what our lives are supposed to be

In the wilderness, with that feeling of hunting, being hunted and
resting when tired, eating when hungry. Some say we would have no
consciousness of it, that such an existence would be no different than
an animal. That we are more than just our instincts, that something
in us, the calculation and reflection lead us to create and make

I am constantly swinging between the the two, spirit and the flesh.

She puts on her clothes, slowly. I have seen her do this many times
before. As she quietly combs her hair in the mirror and looks over at
me with a bittersweet smile. I come up to her from behind and feel
her tenderness throughout. Goodbye. Oh, goodbye.

The rest of the days I am alone. I work hard, and spend many nights
reading and thinking about where I come from, where I am going. It
feels like nowhere on the tough nights. I forget why I am here, why I
do this, what the point of anything really is.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A note on romance and comedy.

There is no relationship between romance and comedy though Holly wood begs to differ.  This formula, repeatedly is regurgitated to produce massive success.  People dig it.  Not the first (or the last) time mass consumption bears little semblance to reality.  Fantasy is yearning, but why do we want romance to be funny?  

And it must be noted nobody else but the Americans ever thought to combine the two.  Add romantic comedies to the endless list of inventions to come from the land of the free.  Up there with the atomic bomb, it is.  

Romance + Comedy = not getting laid.

Romance has always been tragic.  You lose yourself, you immerse yourself in a feeling; a person, knowing full well it won't last and probably won't end well.  Romeo and Juliet was the standard.  Now, it's You Got Mail.  

Contrary to popular belief, insecurity, chaos, risk and the mystery and uncertainty that stems from this drive people into one another's arms.  Amusing safety and security make the whole pursuit of another entertaining.  Try laughing in the midst of sex.  You got to stop laughing to get it up.    

What makes someone laugh, why is something funny?  Let me see, I happen to have a neurology journal at hand and it says :  "Physiologically there is an element of surprise, a perceived threat that doesn't manifest and sudden resultant relief relaxes us, and we laugh.  Ha ha ha."  

Comedy diffuses fear, in fact, it is the only in the absence of fear that comedy can exist.  They may combine romance and even politics with comedy but it's not possible do the same with horror.  That would either be funny or horrific but not both.      

But romance is ripe with fear, especially in risk averse cultures such as ours, it adds an element of uncertainty that's frightening because there is no clear path to success.  In a culture that likes to play by the rules and win, this is a whole new realm that must be sanitized and made safe.  Wouldn't want your precious feelings hurt now, would you? 

So what do you do?  You make light of it, to diffuse its seriousness.  

Why else do we also combine politics with humor?  For the same reason.  We like to laugh at our problems.  It makes them bearable, and laughter, if something is funny, means other generally find it funny, as well.  And collectively laughing probably is an update to the whole misery loves company.  Well, maybe now, misery loves a good joke (about itself?)  

No surprise that the rise of the Daily show and Colbert was during some of the most horrific public moments in recent times (9/11, Bush, 2 wars, etc)  

Why to do we feel a need to make serious matters funny?  What kind of strange defense mechanism is this?  

In the spirit of American pragmatism:  if it works, don't fix it.  Somehow this formula makes people happy, though they are probably confusing happiness with comfort, amusement and entertainment.  But "What is Happiness?" is an inconvenient question for a nation racing in constitutional pursuit of it.    

Laugh at your sorrows, fine.  But realize that the light heartedness/ lack of seriousness towards what is ultimately very serious - love, makes a fool of everyone.  And it takes out the suffering, the poetry, the seriousness of facing mortality and loneliness.  

Everybody laughing, everybody alone.  Amusing ourselves to death.  

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Mon Amour

The human ability to adapt is both a blessing and a curse, as Dostevsky so aptly put it.  To survive is remarkable but soon turns tragic when you get used to a situation that is worse than animal. 


Similarly Haiti, the horror and the heartbreak lead to incredible moments of poignancy.  But the squalor and the absurdity of the situation are nothing to celebrate. 


On top of it, the place is over-run by Aid workers who slowly fill up the restaurants and bars.  I was in one yesterday filled with internationals laughing and drinking in revelry while just meters away the homeless and the sick wait out their fate in makeshift homes in camps.  I supposed it's trite to write about these usual scenarios and I was there too.  Though everyone wants a piece of this action for whatever reason, a travesty attracts the businessman, the do-gooder, the preacher, the poet and the prophet. 


There are daily strange encounters with different people and the varied reasons of why they are here.  It feels like a big party.  Who knew disasters were such fun.  And so many young white women; intelligent, well meaning, photographers, free lance journalists, students.  They are not the only ones but the ones that most stick out to me.  If anyone single handedly has benefited from female empowerment; it's me.  Wonderful for my love life, so I don't mock them, I just find it funny that's all.  I don't know why.    


My seductive powers tend to fall flat on cheerleaders.  But if they've read Milan Kundera – watch out.    


Everyone trying to make a mark, sincere, but adding in their special way to the circus of disaster relief.       


There is a deep desperate need to see real suffering and to do something about it.  The need to sacrifice, to be heroic is just as important as food and shelter.  In this way a fair trade is taking place, between us and them.    


We are both spirit and flesh, and forever the two shall joust.  It is what makes us human.     


And now normalcy sets in.  For those who have and have not both, with the usual hierarchy; the cruelty and injustice.


Communism, socialism, imperialism, colonialism all gave us someone to blame, some direction to the anger the human condition provokes.  Now, no longer.  All problems are technical and a due to a lack of proper coordination, management.  Or it's the fault of those who suffer, of governance and corruption.  And when that fails there is always bad luck to blame.  The Gods.  Fate.  Destiny.  This makes things a lot less emotionally charged.  Hard to get riled up over faulty bureaucracy.


Some countries export cars, others terror.  Haiti will export the threat of chaos, and constantly seduce with its limitless potential.  1 hour away from Miami, so close, so far.    


Success will require a strong response, though already the aid industry works under many contradictions and disconcerted efforts.  Would you want the tower of Babel to rebuild your country?


I'm a bit dismayed and confused by all this.  And the ways forward all lead to the same dead end.  If ever there was an argument for authoritarianism, this is turning out to be a splendid one.


Though I get down by the impossibility and absurdity, there is something intensely exciting about the atmosphere and work.  I am developing a lustful relation to the energy.  It enfuses every aspect of my life with deep meaning.   Boundless opportunities arise to make things move.   


It is also hard not to be struck by the images of the people in the camps and streets.  It's not the misery I speak of, though there is plenty of that to go around, but the joy, smiles, a form of solidarity that emanates in the strangest of times.  I see it on the women selling their goods in wheel barrows and in the children as we patrol the camps at night.  Little hands come out of the darkness to hold mine.  All this endless cordiality and laughter in such despair.   


And you look up and see a whirl of kites soaring above.     


There is hardship, so much is lost, the future uncertain and a hard rain is going to fall.  But humanity and love burst forth.  Dare I say happiness?  Not the kind of happiness we seek in America, or anywhere in the modern world.  No.  We don't really know what happiness is, so we go searching for it.        


Real happiness is a survival mechanism.  When you ain't got nothing, it's the only thing that saves you.  What keeps you going, and it comes to you when you hit so low, touching that space where you end and God begins.  The poor and destitute are religious not because of ignorance.  It's because they feel the presence of the divine directly because they have nothing to distract them from it.


They feel the elements and thus fear them and pray.  They know hunger and eat joyously, and share what little they have.  They die suddenly and live and dance like no tomorrow.  I don't envy them, but am humbled by their natural spirit that takes this situation and makes it theirs.  With their distinct heartfelt mark.           


Haiti mon amour. 

Santo Domingo

Passion and its vicissitudes in a University billiards bar, with hot Caribbean girls who make me feel things inside I never knew I had. It’s sad to know what you’ve been missing. But change has to start somewhere, and longing and loss are always good beginnings, though it hurts.

While we work and struggle with nonsense up North these tropical darlings live and fuck effortlessly. I’ve seen this before, I’ve been here. It was a salsa club in Medellin, I went there during the afternoon and was having a drink as the sunlight beamed in. 70s Salsa blaring, I had it all. The girls, the drugs, the money, the life and it wasn’t enough.

I told myself I come from a great civilization, not like these passionate monkeys that don’t know what tragedy and suffering is. They’ve never had to fight war. Build cities, raise armies, invent the number zero. Fuck it, the Mayas don’t count.

Rackety rack go the balls all over the table and the sound makes a nice back drop to their coy glances. I smile and they smile back.

They touch me with their innocence. The joy of youth is a lack of self – awareness, not knowing what they got – till it’s gone. They’re Roman candles aflame, piercing the stillness of time with their light. Nobody knows when or how it will one day end, vitality.

Nothing worse then growing old. Don’t let them fool you. It’s all downhill, all the time.

So these girls and boys dance, as I watch them perversely from my bar stool writing these very words to capture their attempts of making the carnal, eternal. Colors everywhere. If this isn’t truth, I don’t know what is.

I want to make love, all the time. The older I get the more important it becomes. I have a purpose: Every girl is a part of my constellation. I want to look across, before the big sleep, one last time towards the heavens and see all these starlets come together over me; their sum greater than their parts, somehow making sense of my story in this desolate land.

Each woman is different but they are seduced in the same way.

I went after a woman before making my way down here. She lives on the Upper East Side, alone. I felt here body move to my beat. I took her with one eye on the Manhattan skyline, looking through her window at the bright lights, big city. You really can’t take the Queens outtta the boy.

And in the morning a bagel with lox and cream cheese with a black coffee to celebrate.

The refined gringo pleasures.