Goodbye September!

A month ago, I made a commitment to activate this blog again. What has occurred since, has been a bit consuming but I know I’m doing the right thing because I’m LISTENING! Hello!? Anita, what do you want to do with your life? WRITE! Well get to it lady!

I was just talking to a friend today who asked my about my daughter and I told her she wants to be a guitar player when she grew and I kind of laughed. My friend said “Well I knew I wanted to be a writer around her age.” She’s reminded me that I was around seven, the same as my daughter when I had the idea that I’ve wanted to write books. I’ve never been confused about this. I’ve never had to read a book or take a test to find my passion. I’ve always been driven by words, reading, books, literature, writing, journalism and ideas. And I’ve felt this very strongly from a young age. So what in the world happened? Everyone tells you, find your passion, right? Then just do it.

What happened is a series of sad, but familiar events. My family, immigrants from India weren’t very supportive of creative pursuits.  I recall arguing with my dad, maybe I was 11 or 12 and he said, “Yes become a lawyer or doctor first and THEN you can write a book.” It’s only now as an adult that I know why he was saying this, he only cared for my future, having stability was all my family ever wanted for their kids. A writer’s life was no life for a woman. This was also made clear early on and I have to say, it hurt to hear those words from people I loved.

I struggled through school, had problems paying attention to certain subjects. I always managed to be a solid B student because I got A’s in English, writing, humanities and C’s in math and science, but this grade was not exciting enough for an Indian family. Over time the sadness morphed into a deep depression. By the time I was a freshman in college, pursuing Journalism, a sort of compromise for an English degree because I convinced my dad (and myself) it could lead to a career, I was clinically depressed. Instead of going to class, I would drive to school each day and sleep in the parking lot under the warm sun.

Now, everybody has regrets in life. I totally get it. But I keep repeating the same mistakes. I still haven’t fully figured out how to get passed the doubts, fears and barriers that have built in my mind. It’s not enough to have a passion. You have to be fearless, you have to stand up to others and just do what you want. I’ve never really been able to do this and as each year passes, it becomes hard. I’ve decided to not make it hard anymore. I need to get out of my own way as they say! This seems like a ridiculous time in my life to keep trying, but what else can I do?

It’s taken me years but I know that the best “therapy” is to keep listening. There is nothing worse than to live a life that is marred by regrets. It’s taken me 30 years to figure out the true source of my depression is that I’m simply not doing enough of what makes me happy. I’m not listening to my true self and have tried to run from it, hide it away, and ignore it. But when you’ve had a passion that has been squelched your whole life, you start to become sick. Really, it’s a form of cancer, it just remains. I’m not sure if I can really heal or get over the years that I’ve wasted, but I have to try to keep going on and write. I have so much to write about, this is a gift! A gift of creativity that not everybody has tapped into or feels as strongly. So I must honor it and be okay with fear, understand the barriers and just be a little crazy.

That’s why early this month, I finally decided to put my foot to the metal. I made some clear choices:

I want readers.

I need to put my writing out there.

I’m going to worry less about others.

I’ve been experimenting with a few styles and topics. I have learned what is read and not. But I think the best advice I’ve seen on writing is to not give a care about clicks and views and readers. Just write. But I do have to share this chart, check out September! So thanks to all of you for your support, I plan to keep this space going as well as I can.

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Do negative thoughts ever go away?

092715I have just returned from a place where darkness and negativity had taken over. But I’m back, sitting upright. Today I will write and slowly pound out each word one letter at a time. I’m force feeding myself little gulps of motivation. This post is not a call for sympathy, but a profile that shares how it can feel to live with depression and anxiety. I may look like I’m having fun, or this blog might seem like it’s written by someone who has figured out how to be self-important and filled with positive energy. But depression can take on many forms, it can look like and sound like me. Someone who has fun, enjoys life, with an abundance of energy, filled with dreams and ambitions. And other days, I can look sad, feel angry, alone, and am filled with all manner of negativity. My goal as a writer is to journey into truth, the changing nature of life, and how identity can be obscured by emotions. Because, here I am again, already doubting what I felt so strongly just a few weeks—when I was ready to write, engines on, gaining speed, ideas flowing.

I’m told living a creative life is an exercise of faith in yourself. But this faith is blind, offers little solace, and requires a massive amount of fortitude. To create without understanding the purpose, ignoring the futility, but soldiering onwards, resembles insanity. There is no real way to control the progress, there is no cleared path or manual on how to achieve creative success. The thousands of books written on this subject will never fill the void of self-doubt that creep into every artist’s mind. For the source of self-doubt is individualized, in some it’s calcified and difficult to root out with simple advice. Sure these books and motivational quotes offer some tips, insights, encouragement. I read them and recognize myself, I gulp up the soothing words, like a comfortable bowl of pasta.

But when I am rolled up in pain, positive words do not reach me.

These words sound hollow, stupid and ridiculous. They’re shrill voices say “just change your story, don’t limit yourself, honor your best self, be true, follow your bliss, chase that dream, happiness and achievement is available to all those that believe! If you just believe and motivate and write that journal, pin that dream board, hug your inner child, it’s all here for you, YOUR BEST YOU!!!”

And I want to scream,

I can’t hear you!

What do you know?

I’m wrapped in an eggshell,

the world is my enemy,

I can’t do this.

I can’t do this.

This is how bad it’s gotten. The other night a stranger made me cry. It was Friday, a cap to a week I white-knuckled and tried to smile my way through. I don’t think anybody recognized that my mind was filled with a ticker tape of negative thoughts. I didn’t want to be present or “in the now” because I couldn’t go there. I thought I’d topple over if I tried to feel the pain. So I marched onwards.

I was left tickets for the symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth, vestiges of a failed night out with my husband. He said, “take the child, it will bring her some joy.” My intuition tried to reach me, but I ignored it. Instead, I pushed myself to attend. Already late, I took a wrong turn and drove a whining child through the hills in a desperate search for parking. I found a lot, it cost $20, I only had $16 and I was forced to back out against a flow of incoming cars. I continued to drive in maddening circles. Once we found a spot 45 minutes had passed, my body was a live wire of nerves and clammy sweat. My child kept asking me to slow down, and as she put her hand in mine, I held back tears as we frantically made our way through the darkened amphitheater. The usher pointed to an aisle, we walked down the stone steps and I tried to time our disruption between interludes.

I was hyper-aware of the glares and the silent judgments. “Why are you so late? Who brings a child to a symphony? You are a jerk, an idiot, an asshole.” We found row 6, but it turned out we were on the wrong side of the aisle and a nice woman said “It’s okay just sit here a bit.” She must have read the stress on my face, she patted my shoulder, it was the first time in hours that I took a breath. I needed her niceness and I sat in the aisle and we watched a world-class symphony play in the warm fall evening. I really didn’t want to find our seats and move from this comfortable spot. But just as I was starting to relax, a man tapped me on the shoulder, he hissed “Where are your seats?” I pointed, and his horrible wife glared at me too and he said “You can’t sit here, it’s a fire hazard.” And then I wept, I put my hands on my face and wept right there in front of him. Shoulders heaving with tears dribbling down. The nice woman told me “It’s okay, just sit.” But in my humiliation, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and ran up the steps. We found our seats in the middle of the row amongst annoyed people. I felt trapped, on the verge of a panic attack, with a squirming child who liked some portions and sighed heavily with boredom through the quiet sections. I didn’t hear a note of the music, I just wanted to run, run, run through the hills and scream;

Mind your own business!

Your rude words could be the last straw!

Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone!

It struck me later, that we were in an outdoor amphitheater, with open air seats made of non-flammable stone, and if there were a fire, everyone could’ve easily evacuated. The man that made me cry was just a jerk-off. He and his sour-faced wife probably thought I hadn’t paid my fair share to sit in their snooty section.

But this is not the point, a stranger made me cry, because I was on edge. But it was the moment I realized I had gone too far into the land of depression. I had to figure out how to turn back. I was left with no patience, no reserve of composure or ability to function in public. I scared my daughter, who took care of me and talked quietly and held my hand. Because I live with constant pain, there are times that it becomes too much for me to contain. It can send me to bed for a full day.

I know the source of the pain, deep long childhood trauma that nobody in my family will validate. I live with self-inflicted wounds brought on by my own mistakes as an adult as well. This past record of misdeeds fuels an intense desire to be perfect, flawless, creative, beautiful, mothering, nurturing, the very best of everything and to fail yet again is an utter, abject disgrace. I have mounds of guilt and shame that don’t seem to erode over time. I’ve tried to live with them in a semi-state of denial because dealing with the past bores me and distracts me from my family and writing.

By now you’re worried. Please know I have therapied, medicated, self-soothed, acupunctured, talked, discussed, meditated, begged, prayed, cried, breathed, opened up wounds and figuratively bled out my veins. Yet the pain returns. And all of those well-intentioned words, they don’t help. I’m sorry, Oprah, and Brene Brown, and Elizabeth Gilbert and every other person who espouses that we can get passed all of our obstacles if only work at it, little by little. If we honor ourselves. And dream big. Stay vulnerable, or whatever profitable catch phrase they sing to high holy heaven, are all supposed to help me get passed my personal limits and reduce the pain. But they haven’t.

I want to believe that limits wash away.

I want to believe I can be free from the past.

I want to believe positivity will clear my mind,

like a warm shower after weeks in the wilderness.

So what I’m left with is the unknown, as in nature and art. Because feelings ebb and flow, the way trees interact with the seasons. Thoughts are unreliable. A day under the covers is not a bad thing. Guilt is just a useless habit. Negative people are powerful and abundant. Positive words are pointless in times of distress. This too shall pass. Sadness, anger, pain, isolation will return. Maybe I can keep on writing. It will get interrupted. We all have limits.

10 obsessive questions I ask myself when I have political discussions

political postsI have what some consider a nasty habit, one I’ve had all of my adult life. I love to discuss politics–in any forum, on social media, in person, on the phone, at protests, yelling out my car window, wherever I can. Oh, it’s horrific. I’ve tried to reduce political posts on Facebook in recent years because I can almost see the eye rolls. I’ve also read posts from friends who express their annoyance or frustration when anyone shares opinions about politics. Since I’m a people pleaser, and I obsess over what others think of me I’ve tried to tone it down as much as humanly possible for a self-professed political junkie. But now that I’ve been defriended a few times for posting political opinions, I’ve decided to go outside of my comfort zone and try to worry less about pleasing everyone–it’s simultaneously liberating and scary.

Here’s some background about me, discussing politics is a large part of who I am today. I dislike blaming others for my problems, but it’s my dad’s fault I’m so politically opinionated. I recall when I was about 12 I attempted to read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” thinking it was a book for kids. When my dad found out, he taught me about satire, totalitarianism, and communism, and it was the start of many such conversations. Kind of cool, orrr maybe it’s the source of my troubles? I realized early on that my dad opened up, and he was impressed with my curiosity, so we both fed into each other’s need for acceptance. Since then we’ve rambled on and debated politics, for lengthy periods of time, sometimes in loud voices taking up space in the living room. We’ve been yelled at by the rest of the family to shut up, and they’ve expressed that we seem exclusionary and elitist.

Nearly 30 years later, my dad and I still discuss politics but with less comfort and openness as we once had since the constant criticism has put a damper on our enthusiasm. We talk outside in his beautiful garden, or we discuss the news on the phone, but the energy of the past is gone. It’s a sad loss. But we’ve made a pact that nobody will ever fully stop us from being engaged in political affairs, current events, literature, philosophy, and sociology because we gain enjoyment from discussing these topics.

But lately, I’ve become sensitive, overly-concerned, and I judge myself more harshly than ever before when I express an opinion. Here are some of the obsessive questions I ask myself when discussing politics in person or online:

1. Who in the hell do I think I am?

My credibility is one of my most over-riding concerns, really I have no formal expertise or profession to discuss politics. I agree with this on face value, I’m not an academic or journalist. But I do like to state my opinions and I work hard to be sure they are well-thought-out with research and evidence to support my claim. Admittedly, I read so-called liberal publications, and my points can be progressive, somewhat activist, strange, and off-center, so I’m sure I annoy a lot of people. Sorry, that is not my intent, and I realize that this reaction is a result of our bifurcated society. I also admit that living in The Bay Area has an influence on my world-view, but that doesn’t make my opinions invalid. When the illustrious Sarah Palin came on the scene, I remember thinking if she can go around blabbing about whatever she feels like without any evidence, I shouldn’t feel so worried, at least my viewpoints are intelligent and well-informed. Not that I’m hoping to emulate her but in a weird way I do admire her “you betcha” tenacity. Okay, she is not a very high bar to reach, but you get the point. I just notice others display a delusional amount of self-confidence when stating a position, so why can’t I? I know, my people-pleasing streak is showing, I got to get over it.

2. What if I get negative feedback?

I wish I could understand how people arm themselves against feeling vulnerable when posting opinions or making really strong statements, especially online. I should be ready for questions or disagreements, and so far I do take them seriously and try to respond with respect. But it’s super uncomfortable at times, and when people disagree I feel stupid and self-centered, again I have to learn to get over it. But no matter what, I should expect backlash and disagreement as I become more outspoken about political viewpoints. For example, recently Nicholas Kristoff from The New York Times posted a strong statement about the Republican presidential debates:
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He had so much opposition to his concerns about vaccines that he was compelled to respond to readers by posting this article as scientific proof that they are safe.

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Guess what? He still received comment after comment arguing against vaccination, accusing him of being misinformed, asking him to look at another side and many posted articles that proved their points too. So even the best get this backlash to a position they stand by, so I suppose I could take some solace that this is expected. I don’t think I will ever get over the discomfort, but perhaps I can take more time writing extremely well thought out posts, clearly state my position and then resist responding right away.

3. How do I know I’m posting or stating accurate information?

Accuracy is a tough subject because there is so much information that can be misconstrued to prove any side of a debate. I try to stick to reputable publications, but I’m well aware The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Economist, The Guardian, and the BBC, all have their political slants. Even so-called bi-partisan organizations such as Pew Research still operate within a defined set of beliefs and bias. It just so happens I feel most comfortable with the general position of these media outlets, but if I can find source material, I will use it instead. I’m also fully aware that these media sources can be disproven and they’ve all had scandals surrounding inaccurate articles. But to function and have some semblance of sanity, I have to have a basic trust in the news, and at the same time read it with a grain of salt. And I know that lobbying groups distribute press releases to these organizations projecting their self-interests in articles. Again, all these factors are a huge constraint because it has become increasingly difficult to read untainted information. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I may be spreading untruths but I hope to be the first to point it out and I will always own up to it.

4. What is my motivation for posting a political statement?

I struggle with this as well, am I posting my position to make a point, or convince people to change their minds? Sometimes I may be doing this, such as with issues surrounding climate change, women’s health and gun control. At the same time, I know that I’m unlikely to make an impact with those who have strong beliefs. However, many people’s positions on issues fall in the middle, and some haven’t formed an opinion. So, despite all my intentions to share information for the sake of discussion, I admit that I do hope to influence or inform someone. At the very least, it would be fun to have a healthy dialogue that is not peppered with hateful criticism and false judgments.

5. Why should I care, it’s not like I can make a difference?

Yeah, I can take on this apathetic point of view from time to time. I don’t see much point in discussing every issue, or fighting for every cause. Certainly, it seems that the powers that be are doing what they want with little input from society. But every once in a while I do see glimpses of change, and I totally fall for it time and again. There is something to be said about the democratic process, call me a Pollyanna, but I believe in the power of the people!

6. Am I a pretentious and entitled liberal latte?

I have been accused of this over the years and, in theory, I try to “own it” as friends have suggested. But, I was just called a stuck-up yuppie, so maybe I should take heed? Or develop a thick skin? I can see that I may come off as an entitled, bleeding- heart liberal. And I’ve noticed that the progressive point-of-view is going out of favor and becoming outdated even in the liberal bastion of San Francisco. So maybe one of my goals could be to refine my positions based on what super cool millennials or even libertarians believe. I do try to listen to other ideas, and it’s a challenge to change completely, but I’m open to trying. Some of my viewpoints have changed as I’ve gotten older. At any rate, I hate lattes they have too much milk, I prefer hipster cold-brew coffee, low ice, with a splash of unsweetened organic almond milk. Yes, please!

7. Should I just get over it and post cat videos all day?

It’s hard to accept that perhaps I should consider eliminating all political discussion online. Honestly, a sort of malaise sets over me when I consider this approach. And I do feel like such an outsider, alone in my liberal, hipster garage in Oakland writing pretentious literary and political posts. I know my close friends will try to support, but they will burn out too. I notice I get more likes on Facebook when I post pictures of my coffee or a cute quote by my daughter than one of my long blabby blog posts (like this one). I wish I could be more neutral. I do post silly memes and the latest hip-hop dance craze, and I find it funny too, I’m not being fake. I do have a sense of humor. I swear, really I do! But maybe I should keep this in mind,

You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena. –Jon Stewart

I guess it’s true, about all we can agree upon now is ironic posts of TV shows and kitty cat videos. Yay kitty cat videos, nobody ever gets mad at me for posting Dance Kitty Cat. Dance, I’m a kitty cat, and I dance, dance, dance.

8. Really, maybe I should think about shutting up for once in my life?

I do think it’s probably better to keep quiet and post mundane items on Facebook even though there is so much happening in the world. As I’ve become more openly political again, I already feel a little drained by the conversations. I still feel this need to explain my positions in a way that doesn’t offend, but somehow I still do! I always obsess about other people’s feelings and have lost hours of sleep over a comment or a post. This conflict is insane for someone as loud-mouthed as me, and I do live with constant inner turmoil. It’s awesome!! But I do believe that political dialogue is a crucial activity for a functioning Democracy. As Plato says (and yeah screw it, call me snooty),

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

9. Am I well-informed or am I an out of touch, intellectual snooty-pants?

It’s difficult for me to stay out of a political conversation for long. Sooner or later I will see or hear something, and my curiosity will get the best of me. I learned from my father early on that those in power want to stifle our voices, quell our passionate discourse, keep us muted because it makes it easier for them to govern without our involvement. Yes, politics seems more confusing and divisive than ever, but this is done on purpose to promote disengagement. For example, a common accusation is sounding too academic or “professorial” (an insult hurled at Obama), or stuck-up, or holier than thou. These are all tactics to quiet people who have an opinion, to discredit those who are trying to speak out.
Also, it’s easy to point out that elitism is separate from populist sentiment and that being well-informed, well-read, and educated is not compatible with the ideals of the general public. I disagree wholeheartedly, one of the benefits of the Internet is the availability of information to a broader public, now we can access what was once only available to those in the ivory towers. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to read one article, or search for some background to be engaged, or as informed as only the elite once were. No wonder political leaders want to keep us divided!

10. Maybe people don’t want to express their opinions as openly as I do? 

I do understand that not everyone likes to be open or feels comfortable expressing a strong opinion. I think it does take a little bravery, slight egotism and desire to engage. Some of my friends have admitted they dislike discussing politics because they don’t feel fully informed. Again, it’s not about being perfectly accurate, and sometimes clarity can come through discussion. Sometimes, in the midst of a heated debate I might not let someone get a word in edgewise, but it’s okay to interrupt sometimes! Anyhow, everyone has their weaknesses, and I’m always working on my listening skills. On the other hand, I do wish people would try not to feel bothered when anyone posts articles, quotes, or posts their own opinions. My hope is that everyone tries to take the time and engage in political discussion a little more, even if it is scary. I swear it can be a lot of fun, and it maybe change the way you see the world around you or inspire you to act, or learn a new history or point-of-view. Isn’t this a good thing?

The Weekly Miscellany: On Omission, Refugees and The History of Isis

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Reading about writing is on of my favorite pastimes. This week John McPhee, long-time New Yorker contributor began his regular column “Writing Life” recalling his experience as a writer for the Miscellany column in Time. Of course, as you can imagine I was thrilled to see the connection. The rest of his piece is advice on what to omit when writing, so it was very useful.

On another note, I’ve been reading all I can about the refugee migration, with an eye for learning about the root causes and the future for this massive humanitarian crisis. But I’m also compelled due to my own family legacy of human migration during the Indian Partition because we still live with an unspoken history. I think of how that event impacted us now and when I see the faces of children walking along railroad tracks with their small possessions in tow, I know the pain of displacement will continue for a new generation. All I can hope is that their futures are filled with some amount of opportunity.

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I guess I wasn’t the only publication to think of a miscellany column

Omission, choosing what to leave out from The New Yorker, Sept. 14, 2015

At Time in the nineteen-fifties, the entry-level job for writers was a column called Miscellany. Filled with one-sentence oddities culled from newspapers and the wire services, Miscellany ran down its third of a page like a ladder, each wee story with its own title—traditionally, and almost invariably, a pun.

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A controversial point of view about how nations should deal with refugee crisis from philosopher Slavoj Zizek 

The Non-Existence of Norway from The London Review of Books, Sept. 9, 2015

If we really want to stem the flow of refugees, then, it is crucial to recognise that most of them come from ‘failed states’, where public authority is more or less inoperative: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, DRC and so on. This disintegration of state power is not a local phenomenon but a result of international politics and the global economic system, in some cases – like Libya and Iraq – a direct outcome of Western intervention. (One should also note that the ‘failed states’ of the Middle East were condemned to failure by the boundaries drawn up during the First World War by Britain and France.)

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Strangers in strange lands. The world’s institutional approach to refugees was born in Europe seven decades ago. The continent must relearn its lessons, from The Economist, Sept. 12, 2015.

Notice the immensity Partition of India in such a short period of time.

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For months refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea have been retracing the routes used by European refugees in the 1940s. They pick their way through razor-wire fencing on Serbia’s northern border, where ethnic Hungarians once fled Titoist partisans. They are smuggled in trucks across Austria, just as Jews headed from Poland to Palestine once were. But this time the flow is moving in the opposite direction: towards Germany.

More on history of past refugees:

But every wave of immigration has been accompanied by fears. In 1709 the War of the Spanish Succession sent thousands of refugees from lower Saxony down the Rhine and across the North Sea to London. Believing that they would then be offered free passage to America, the so-called “Poor Palatines” instead ended up in refugee camps. Daniel Defoe and other Whigs argued that they were Protestant refugees from Roman Catholic oppression and should be settled in England—an argument that suffered a blow when, on closer inspection, half the Palatines turned out to be Catholic themselves. A Tory faction meanwhile argued that they were economic migrants, low-skilled undesirables who would prove an endless burden on the Crown. Ultimately, investors were found to put some of them on boats to America, where they founded Germantown, New York.

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The Truth about the Caliphate, from Prospect, Aug. 20, 2015.

What today’s commentators in London and Washington often forget—and militants repeatedly remind themselves and anyone else prepared to listen—is that the supremacy of the west is a relatively new phenomenon in historical terms. Across much of the world, for two thirds of the last 1,300 years, the power, the glory and the wealth was, broadly speaking, Islamic. The story of the caliphate, both as historical reality and as imagined by extremists like those of the Islamic State, can only be understood within the context of this overarching narrative, as the means by which the militants seek to return the world’s Muslim community to what it sees as its rightful status: a global superpower.

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I didn’t want to read My Struggle, but now I’m hooked!

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Before I became a ridiculously over-zealous fan, I had no interest reading “My Struggle”, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3600-page fictional memoir. Who in the world would ever read something so long, much less write such a voluminous text? Brevity is key in this world of 140 character Twitter posts and pithy advertising copy. We want short, to the point, condensed nuggets. Not some self-obsessed writer droning on for pages. I’d heard of Knausgaard following my nerdy literary world of journals and book reviews, but I remained a hold-out, passing up the release of three out of six volumes (yeah SIX VOLUMES). I wasn’t that intrigued, and it always seems that literati has a penchant for male authors who write long diatribes, so I brushed him off as the newest David Foster Wallace. I favored reading contemporary women fiction writers because I had spent my youth devouring all the male literary giants, and so Knausgaard was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to read.

Then I happened upon “My Saga” a sort of travel piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine about his adventure through North America. I noticed his pictures right away, and he is handsome, in that edgy chain-smoking way that should bore me by now. But what about his writing? I was hooked after I read a few paragraphs. His style is soft and flowing the opposite of Hemmingway but not quite with the frenetic energy of a Hunter J. Thompson rant. He can describe a mundane event page after page, with details and facts that you may or may not need to know. Then he makes a soft turn, very subtly infusing a statement that causes a slow pause, and you begin to understand the purpose of the details and want to know every moment. His scenes of everyday life, don’t necessary prove a point, but sometimes they do support his digressions, it just takes hundreds of pages for the reader to make the connection. In My Saga, I was pulled into a story about his lost backpack, and he writes,

There is a saying in Norway that he who loses money shall receive money, and I think that’s true, because when you lose things, it means you’re not on your guard, you’re not trying to control everything, you’re not being so anal all the time — and if you aren’t, but allow yourself to be open to the world instead, then anything at all might come to you.

I knew what he meant. I could relate, in a way when I was messier, I also had a different energy and felt more alive. Sure stuff got lost, but I wasn’t living in the grips of control. I kept on reading and found his whole botched adventure, insightful in a strange stoic, repressed yet observant, wryly humorous manner. But I didn’t think I’d read his books, it seemed too much of an investment. His stories are about events that are familiar, driving around America, or clogging up a toilet, but then he digresses with insights about literature and philosophy and then weaves his way back to the start.

But then in My Saga, Knausgaard relates a story to the photographer that he is traveling with, about meeting with a famous writer (he is unnamed in this piece, but later Jeffrey Eugenides outs himself). Knausgaard realizes that his silence may have offended the author, and the story picks up here;

Then I realized he must have taken my silence personally. He must have thought I didn’t find it worth my time talking to him.

I wrote back and asked him if he’d seen any Bergman movies? No one talks there either. And Finland was even worse; there, no one ever said anything to each other. I wrote that I’m always like this, that I never say anything to people I don’t know, even when they’re having dinner at our house. He never answered.

“Who was it?” Peter asked.

I told him.

“It’s deeply un-American, you know, not to make small talk. It’s a very important part of the culture of this country. You remind me a little of my dad. He didn’t know how to make small talk, either, when he first got here. Or maybe he didn’t want to. But he does now.”

Now I had no doubt that I must read “My Struggle”. He was pinpointing something that is relatable to me, the trials of an introvert, but he brings in observations that are distinctly not an American point of view. I have noticed this type of interaction and have wanted to write about this very theme. But he encapsulated this struggle, the quiet person versus the incessant American need for small talk, with an exchange and a short interlude to another story. I had to step into his Norwegian world, all 3600 pages!

Because of translation and publishing dates volumes come out in sporadic succession, but I went through the first three books rapidly. But the struggle of being introverted were one of many for the author, who is the main character of his fictionalized version of his memories. And what is a fictional memoir? If it’s confusing, you’re not alone. However, as you read you’re constantly asking yourself, is this his memory, or is it a fictionalized account? Of course, in true meta-fictional style, he as the narrator explores the very notion of memory and false memory. So you get the idea that he is playing with the past at the very same time he writes about his present life.

Aside from his life in Norway and Sweden, with scenes and discussions about the cultures and attitudes in these two countries, he also writes about his successes and struggles to be an author. He has all sorts of bourgeois baggage, that in itself is not that compelling. He has episodes of drinking problems, leaves his first wife, falls in love and marries again, has kids, his abusive father dies, he has a brother and relates long conversations with a close friend. But his intensity about his work, the malleability of identity, and his digressions that somehow touch upon these concepts, make his work compelling.

When I read Knausgaard I see a story every day, all around me, conversations on the bus, the interaction with my mom, my child, and husband. I notice small details, sounds, landscapes, and relationships, and I realize there is so much there, all around me. I kept thinking about all the scenes I wanted to write, connecting ideas or random thoughts. His struggle is inspiring, more so than overly positive affirmations that have become all the rage. When I posted the quote below on Facebook, a friend said, “Ouch.” But I get it, I understand. Right now, I’m more than disgusted with myself that I haven’t written enough and have so much more to write. So I needed this Knausgaardian kick in the seat because I can only be a writer if I write. Simple but harder than you think.

“If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity it is the following:

Don’t believe your are anybody.

Do not fucking believe your are somebody.

Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.

Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.

So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit.”

I tested my racial biases and got a kick in the gut

Indian-wedding

I’ve always had a good reason for not marrying within my own race, religion, caste, and class–as my Punjabi-Sikh parents would have liked. My usual response to everyone, Indian or not, is that I would’ve married someone from my own race if I had met the right guy, it just never happened. Really, I’m just an open-minded person, I don’t value one race, class, or religion over the other because I like everyone equally. That’s why I fell in love and married a man from Iceland. I valued him the same as every man, and as a person, for his values, attitudes and beautiful smile. His race didn’t have any bearing on my decision.

Recently, I was hanging with friends, we’d been talking about diversity and race all afternoon. I brought up my choice to marry outside of my race and gave my little speech about how I view everyone as equal. One friend interrupted my cliche little story and said “Na, na, na…I gotta challenge you on this. You have your own biases and they played into the decision not to marry someone Indian.” That stopped me in my tracks. I wasn’t put off by the point he made, partly because he is an African-American who married a white woman–so he’d probably explored his own choice. But mainly because, I knew that he was right in that instant. I looked at him and said, “Hmm. Maybe I’m biased against Indian men?” He shrugged, rhetorically. I laughed, “You know I’ll be thinking about this for a while”.

The thing is when you’re invariably talking about racial identity, culture, diversity, black lives, brown lives, white lives, conversations go deep. You begin to challenge others, to notice your own bias and to see points of view in a different light. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a friend such as mine, who is smart as a whip and doesn’t let you get away with crap. Now this is progress if you think of it. Each of us opening up, digging into the murky ugly bits. Sometimes it’s mean sounding, growling and unrelenting. The conversations can leave you with a squirmy, uncomfortable itch that crawls from your toes and rolls around your belly. It’s everywhere, it’s nowhere and then it’s back out to surprise. Your nerves get frayed. You hope the conversations go away. But sitting in a sweat-inducing spot of discomfort is the first clue, you’re onto something good.

So what about my own revelation? It didn’t take me long to get to the core of my friend’s objection. He was proposing that I chose not to marry someone Indian because I have a bias against my own race. I knew enough about implicit bias to recognize it right away. But it was the first time that I realized it within myself. Denial or unawareness of implicit bias is a defining principal, as this definition from the Kirwan Institute from Ohio State University points out;

Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.

Recognizing bias is a first step, like any subconscious thought that has been buried under deep layers of denial, facing such issues takes a willingness to sit with discomfort. I’ve been down this road before, coming to terms with personal baggage over the years. Honestly, I thought I had worked pretty hard to uncover what was hidden from my conscious self. But here I was again, I had to face this and I did want to understand how it was possible that I had a bias against my own race? Once it was pointed out, I couldn’t unsee it. I mean I laughed at Stephen Colbert every time he joked about race saying he didn’t see color. I laughed because it’s a ridiculous statement. And yet I was saying the same thing to everyone, without seeing the joke!

I figured I should take The Implicit Association Test (IAT) that I had seen referenced many times, mostly when discussing bias against African Americans or gender. It struck me that I never thought to take the test myself up until this point. Why was that? If I think about my explicit statements about race, mainly that I liked everyone equally, it made sense that I wouldn’t find it necessary to test my biases. Consciously, I genuinely felt I had no biases against any race, gender or sexual orientation, and definitely not against my own race! I’m a product of multiculturalism, immigration, and the American Dream. But now that my position that I viewed people with absolute racial equality had been questioned, I became more curious about my unconscious motivations.

According to the Project Implicit website, “the IAT measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about.” This is exactly what I wanted to learn, what was I unable to see about my own biases. Interestingly, the test comes with several warnings and this is the last statement before entering the site; “I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed.” I entered the testing site and was surprised that there were 14 different tests, arrrgh. I naively thought that there would be one simple test that would show my bias against Indian, or South Asian men. Hint Hint, Project Implicit!

But no, that would be too simple, so I had to improvise. The first test I took was the Arab-Muslim IAT because it seemed the most relevant because it compares Muslims to Other People and I figured an Arab-Muslim is kind of like and Indian. Plus, I grew up in a Sikh household and Muslims were not spoken of in a positive light. Long before the negative propaganda hit mainstream media, my grandmother was already priming us never to speak to Muslims. Not only that, as a young girl I was also told that the worst thing I could ever do was to marry a Muslim. This goes back to centuries of conflict between religions in India, including the fact my grandmother walked from Pakistan to Punjab, during the 1947 partition amidst murderous strife between Sikhs and Muslims. But I grew up in America where diversity and freedom of religion were pounded into my head. My father talked of the egalitarian values of Sikhism, that preaches we are all one in the eyes of God. So, I always felt uncomfortable with the negative portrayal of Muslims and I’ve often stood up for them arguing that xenophobic statements are dangerous and untrue. So it’s fair to say I was more than surprised to read the results of the Arab-Muslim IAT that “suggest a moderate automatic preference for other people compared to Arab Muslims.” Okay, well it at least it was moderate and technically it plays into my hypothesis that I may have a bias against my own race and I preferred other people.

I felt a little stunned and I understood why the test had so many disclaimers because the results are not suggesting that I’m explicitly racist toward any group, rather I had a more nuanced, subconscious bias, despite my well-meaning liberal intentions. Based on my upbringing and the more recent portrayals of Arab-Muslims since 9/11, it’s no wonder I have a moderate automatic preference for non-Arabs. Ugh. I can barely write this sentence without feeling the need to be apologetic and guilt-ridden. But this is the whole point of implicit bias, we don’t see it, but we may act upon it.

Okay, well the only thing to do next was take another test and so I chose the Asian IAT, knowing full well it would focus on East Asian identity, which is different that South Asian identity. Maybe that would get me closer to testing my bias against Indian-Americans. This test was less alarming in one sense that it didn’t compare a race against negative terms like disgust or pain. But, it was testing my ability to categorize Asian-Americans, European-Americans, American landmarks and foreign landmarks. But it did tap into an old memory, growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Southern California. It was always in the atmosphere for Americans to complain about Asian immigrants as foreigners, unable to integrate into American society. I could feel old memories creep back into my conscious mind as I took the test and I could sense a bias toward one group over the other, just based on how quickly I answered. The results of this test showed that I had a “moderate association of Asian-Americans with American compared to European-American.” Basically, I feel that Asian-Americans are more aligned with the US than European Americans. That’s also probably because I’m biased due to growing up in an immigrant household and don’t associate foreignness with otherness or being less American. It also shouldn’t go without noting that I’m married to a European and I do think of him as non-American. Interesting, how the test can suss out this slight variance. But, now I was bothered that I didn’t show “no automatic preference” proving that I simply didn’t have a bias, as I’ve so often mentioned and wholeheartedly believed.

Okay, one last test. I can do it. Just the process of taking these tests bring to light the moments that you have a slower reaction to one bias than another. As your fingers are placed on the keyboard, there are are easier to answer combinations and then there are others that take a second thought, or a re-read to combine two usually disconnected combinations. I really wanted to learn if I had a bias against Indians and because there wasn’t a direct test that compared South-Asians with European-Americans, I had to hodge-podge it together. So I decided to take the Skin Tone IAT. And what do you know, I show a “strong automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin.” In fact, 70% of respondents score either strong, moderate or slight preference for light skin and just 12% score a preference for dark skin over light. I was pretty disappointed not to be a part of 17% of respondents that show “no automatic preference,” which is what I’ve consciously thought.

All in all, after taking three IAT tests, I show a slight preference for other people over Arab-Muslims, slight preference for Asians as American and a strong preference for light skin. But does this prove I’m biased against my own race? This is complicated and startling and has made think back to what I’ve absorbed my whole life. Obviously, I have been thinking a lot about this topic since my friend pointed out that my attraction to my husband was subconsciously influenced by my implicit bias towards something I may not have explored. What I’ve learned is that I prefer light skin and I have always found white guys more attractive, so I guess it’s true.

If I think about influences, I was raised in an immigrant household and my parents did everything they could to assure I was on the right path in life. That may have meant they instilled some sense that white America was an ideal identity, either by abandoning a second language or watering down their own religious and cultural practices. It was more important to my parents that I worked to blend in with my white friends than to stand out or promote my own racial background, even though at the same they scolded me for being too American. This focus was sometimes very subtle, but other times, in the case of language, it was entirely concrete. Along the way, someone told my parents that my education would suffer if I spoke a second language, and so I was told to only to speak English. So there goes Punjabi. Also, my parents moved to Southern California and started a family in the early 70’s when there wasn’t a large community of Punjabis, as there is now. We had close family friends that were white and Indian, of every type, Hindu, Gujarati, and Sikh. Although this sounds ideal, and in many instances it was, my parents also had a strange distrust towards Indians. I always remember a time when I was about 13 and my parents decided to work with an Indian couple as their real estate agents. Over the course of many months, I had seen both of my parents struggle with this couple and at one point they  told me that they just didn’t like doing business with Indians. Strange, right? You’d think that they’d have an allegiance towards fellow countryman, but in many instances that I can clearly recall, they didn’t. Another factor I find interesting is that they began to see a second wave of immigrants come to the US, and this group had stronger ties to their culture, homeland, and language. I can image that this made my parents feel like outsiders within their own race and at the same time not fully integrated with white American families either. We always straddled both cultures, kind of in an isolating way.

I suppose this is the whole point of digging into implicit bias. It’s not as apparent as explicit racism and the causes, sources and backstory tend to be complicated, nuanced and hard to understand. For me, I can understand now that I have a bias against Indian men, even if at the same time I love many things about my culture, like yummy food and over the top Bollywood films. But the few Indian men that I dated only served to validate my assumption that they were chauvinistic, close-minded, and arrogant. I still joke that no Indian man would put up with my mouthy, rebellious and adventurous ways. If I think about it, this version of my story is counter to the myth that I was really open to marry anyone. I just happened to fall in love with a fairly feminist man who is the complete opposite of the stereotype I created for Indian men. Was this a bad thing? Probably not, I do feel I found a partner that I prefer, for many reasons. But for my parents and my family, it was a disappointment and I’m sure they felt that I turned my back on my own culture. Up until this point, I would have argued that this wasn’t true and I just followed my heart. But now I know that there was plenty more going on subconsciously that led me to this decision.

I think this is the lesson, that going forward I may have a more accurate picture and won’t continue to propagate a very narrow view that I was just such an open-minded person that race and skin color played no part in choosing a mate. There isn’t an easy way to deal with this revelation, except to pass on to others how important it is to challenge one’s own deeply rooted subconscious biases. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to face the idea that you may not be living the dream as openly as you thought, but it’s utterly necessary if we are to understand how racism truly affects our society. Also, learning about biases shouldn’t validate our current position, it’s important to try to remove the power bias has in our decision making. We can’t just go around saying “I don’t see color” and expect people to believe us, especially if we can’t believe ourselves.

The Modernist’s Weekly Miscellany

Miscellany

I share a lot of articles, podcasts, books, TV, and movies on social media. I share because I crave discussion. I share because I love to read, watch and listen. I share when something inspires, enlightens and comforts my mind. It is with this intention that I plan to share a weekly collection of the very best that tickled my fancy—it may have made me laugh, gasp or cry—but most of all I hope you enjoy.

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Excerpt from The Lady’s Weekly Miscellany, New York, Saturday, April 30, 1808

Lucretia Greenville.
The following extraordinary account an attempt made by Lucretia Greenville, to assassinate the tyrant Oliver Cromwell, copied from a European Magazine, is a remarkable trait of female revenge. As it is probable very few of our readers are acquainted with the particulars, we believe it will be generally acceptable.

This exalted female was betrothed to Francis, Duke of Buckingham, at the time that he fell in a battle by the hand of Cromwell himself, and upon receiving intelligence of the melancholy event, she swore to avenge his death on the murderer. During the three succeeding years, she exercised herself with pistols in firing at a portrait of Cromwell, which she had selected as a mark, that she might not be awed by the sight of the original; and as, soon as she found herself perfect, she sought and opportunity of gratifying her revenge. But Cromwell seldom appeared in public; and when he did, it was with such precaution, that few could approach his person.

An occasion at length occurred; the city of London resolved to give a magnificent banquet in honor of the Protector, who, either from vanity or with a political view, determined to make his entrance into London in all the splendor of royalty. Upon this being made public, the curiosity of all ranks was excited; and Lucretia Greenville resolved not to neglect so favourable an opportunity. Fortune herself seemed to second her purpose; for it so happened, that the procession was appointed to proceed through the very street in which she resided, and a balcony before the first story of her house yielded her full scope for putting her long premeditated design in effect.

On the appointed day she seated herself, with several other female companions, in the balcony, having on this occasion, for the first time since her lover’s death, cast off her mourning, and attired herself in the most sumptuous apparel. It was not without the greatest exertions that she concealed the violent emotion under which she laboured: and when the increasing pressure of the crowd indicated the approach of Cromwell, it became so strong, that she nearly fainted, but, however, recovered just as the usurper arrived within a few paces of the balcony.

Hastily drawing the pistol from under her garment, she fearlessly too her aim, and fired; but a sudden start, which the lady who sat next to her made, on beholding the weapon, gave it a different direction than was intended, and the ball striking the horse rode by Henry, the Protector’s son, it was laid dead at his feet. The circumstance immediately arrested the progress of the cavalcade and Cromwell, at the same time, that he cast a fierce look at the balcony, beheld a singular spectacle; about twenty females were on their knees imploring his mercy with uplifted hands, whilst one only stood undaunted in the midst of them, and looking down contemptuously on the usurper, “Tyrant! it was I who dealt the blow; nor should I be satisfied with killing a horse instead of a tiger, were I not convinced that, ere another twelvemonth has elapsed, Heaven will grant another that success which it was denied to me!”

The multitude, actuated more by fear than love, was preparing to level the house to ground; when Cromwell cried aloud with the most artful sang froid, “Desist, my friends! alas! poor woman, she knows not what she does,” and pursued his course; but afterwards caused Lucretia to be arrested, and confined in a mad-house.

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The Other France, New Yorker, August 31, 2015.

“To many Parisians, the 93 signifies decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment, and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation. The cités and their occupants are the subject of anxious and angry discussion in France”.

line breakNeuroTribes’ Examines the History–and Myths–of the Autism Spectrum, Fresh Air, September 2, 2015.

“So I think that society really needs to do a bit of soul-searching about how we’re dealing with autism. And we need to get over our obsession with causes because we’ve been researching the cause of schizophrenia for decades, and we still don’t know what causes schizophrenia exactly.”

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The San Francisco Hipster is Dead Y’All, 48Hills, September 1, 2015

“The days of being able to be willfully obscure, outrageous, awkward, artistic, pretentious, and poor are long behind us. I never thought I’d miss greasy asymmetrical bowl-cuts and fake American Apparel oversized glasses as much as this, but I kind of do.”

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Down by the Riverside, Sister Rosetta Tharpe 

I feel so bad in the morning
I feel so bad in the middle of the day
I feel so bad in the evening
that’s why i’m going to the river, to wash my sins away

I’m gonna lay down my heavy load, down by the riverside,
Down by the riverside, down by the riverside
I’m gonna lay down my heavy load, down by the riverside,
I’m gonna study war no more

I ain’t a gonna study war no more,
I ain’t a gonna study war no more

I ain’t a gonna study war no more,
I ain’t a gonna study war no more

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