February 14

All my Valentine’s Days till date have been forgettable. On most days I don’t believe in love, unless it is directed towards the sun or ramen noodles. Last year was a little out of the ordinary. I didn’t have class that day so came out of my dorm room in the afternoon to participate in a Narrative Comprehension study (great way to earn cash when living a student life). Usually the kids in the college were an uncommunicative, anti-social lot but this time I sort of got talking to the guy conducting the study. He told me about an open secret of the Uni; a wooden bench located over an air vent in the quad. And how he could spend days on that bench, even in the snow. Minutes later I was sitting on the warm bench, enjoying the oasis of warmth in the midst of a desert of cold, and that fleeting connection between two human beings. I didn’t sit on that bench again. In the following months, I didn’t see him sitting on that bench either.

Many weeks ago, I came across a Twitter challenge asking the Uni alums/students to write an ultra-short story about the Uni. Up till then, I was blissfully unaware of Hemingway’s six word story- “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I wrote one about that afternoon– Rosenwald’s warm bench brought them closer. I hope you have had far more rewarding February 14ths.

More six word stories can be found here and here.

23 things in 2013

A list of the “first time” things I did in 2013—

1. Hiked in the Grand Canyon (first day of the year).
2. Biked on the Chicago Lakefront trail.
3. Couchsurfed.
4. Hosted a couchsurfer.
5. Saw a celebrity on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Helen Mirren).
6. Saw/heard an opera—Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
7. Met the new love of my life—shiitake mushrooms.
8. Took a week-long solo trip.
9. Taught myself (with the help of two friends) how to ice skate.
10. Saw a play—Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
11. Went for a music concert—Mika.
12. Worked part-time as a tutor and proctor.
13. Paid income tax.
14. Attended a live music performance (BB Kings Blues Club, and House of Blues).
15. Saw from the outside both of Obama’s houses (White House and the one in Hyde Park).
16. Went to Disneyworld.
17. Went to beaches on the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean.
18. Ate at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown on the Chinese New Year.
19. Participated in a pride demonstration outside the US Supreme Court.
20. Saw the moon, Saturn, Uranus and some random stars through a telescope.
21. Experienced really cold temperatures (-20ºC = 4ºF).
22. Sent postcards to people I don’t know (via Postcrossing).
23. Started a blog!

Random Acts of Kindness

I love food. Love buying it, love cooking it, and love eating. Maybe this is the reason why I don’t like cooking only for myself. As a result, I often invite people over for meals. If you know me (and I like you), you have definitely eaten something cooked by me. The 3/4ths of a year I spent in Chicago was filled with many such get-togethers. Once I had invited my Chinese friends over and was waiting for them in the lobby so I could let them in—International House, the dorm where I stayed, was entry by key access. I-House also organised a lot of cultural events, open to all, and on such occasions the front doors were kept unlocked. Which meant I should have been waiting for their text/call instead of them but then we wouldn’t have this story. So there I was, hovering like a poltergeist, when a lady came out of the Assembly Hall (where the talk/show was being held) and walked towards me. I was prepared to be all ghostlike and pretend I wasn’t there because I’m one those people, the ones you see on movie and TV screens, the ones who turn around to see who the person waving at them is waving at. She asked where she could find drinking water. I told her about the drinking fountain in the dining area (I’m not rude; lack of ‘normal’ amounts of confidence makes me do ‘inappropriate’ things sometimes). She wanted to eat her medicines and asked again, even started to give me money so I could buy her a bottle of water. I walked to my locker, took out a glass, filled it with water, and brought it back to her. She was thankful. I hung around because I wasn’t sure if she would drink the entire thing then, ask for more, throw the glass away, take it with her, or just because I didn’t know what the next proper response was. Then I left. My friends reached. They brought food with them (they never listen!). We had a great time. Sometimes they would forget about me and start jabbering away in Mandarin so I would go back to my favourite pastime of observing people, freed from the obligation of taking part in a conversation. After I had said goodbye to them and was walking back, I crossed the place where I had met the lady. My glass was still there. Underneath it was a note.

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For some reason (okay, I know what reason), the janitorial staff at I-House is either Hispanic or African-American. During my first week there, I once shared an elevator with a Mexican expat/naturalized US citizen(?). He started to speak to me in Spanish before my clueless expression gave me away. We went on to become good friends. I would always say hola when I spotted him, regardless of the fact that we didn’t have much to say to each other. Everything that could be said had already been spoken. All the Spanish phrases he had taught me had been endlessly repeated. He was assigned my floor so I would know it was him whenever I heard cleaning sounds in the loo. On one such loo visit, he told me about the bad cold and headache he was suffering through and I offered to give him some medicine I had carried from home (my mum is a doctor; I’ve been self-medicating from a long, long time). He was super pleased and thankful but then he was always super cheerful, even while complaining about being ill. I met him a few days later and he was better, and feeling super-super-pleased, so much so that he was telling the other cleaning staff member about the huge “favour” I had done him (I ended up giving medicine to the other guy too). He then invited me to share his lunch and I politely refused (note to self: do not pass up opportunities to have good food!). I had no idea how thankful he was until I reached my room to find a box of chocolate precariously balanced on the door handle.

I don’t quite know how to deal with people thanking me. My native language doesn’t even have a word for “welcome”. My mum gave me a gentle ribbing for my medicine-for-chocolate programme when I told her about it. In the end, it was J who had done a kindness to me. Like the lady with the tall glass of water. Both these thank you notes made me feel like I mattered. That at a certain point in time, I had made a meaningful, positive difference to someone’s life. The number of people who have been kind to me is way larger than the number of people who I have been helpful to. I think this is the way I should (mis?)represent it in my head, it inspires me to keep trying to level the score. Every time I feel used or exploited by a friend or family member, I think of my friend who gave me her pack of Oreo biscuits during a lunch talk because the only thing being served was pepperoni pizza (ah! the trials of being a vegetarian in a carnivorous world). The same friend who, within two hours of talking to me, gave me a free ticket to the Field Museum (a place I wouldn’t have visited otherwise). The woman in Boston who stopped me and offered to give me directions when I was lost in the rain. The man on the platform in a Frankfurt station who stopped me from getting on the wrong train, not to the airport, when I was saddled with two heavy suitcases and the worry of getting them out of there. The young girl at the Ben Gurion airport bus terminal who stopped me from getting on the wrong bus (there was more trouble later when I finally reached Herzliya). All these people who helped a stranger, without being asked, without expecting anything in return. In doing a kindness to other people, you are doing a kindness to yourself. Because what goes around, comes around. Be nice to everyone, even if they are not nice to you, because someone is waiting for the chance to be nice to you. Random kindness is the most contagious form there is so let’s just infect everybody. Make this world a kinder place.

 

If you feel warm and fuzzy after reading this (or otherwise), please tell me about a time when somebody random was nice to you (in a comment below).   

Reflections

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If I were to list the things I love about Chicago, this structure would make it to the top two. I clicked this photograph on the day of my first visit to The Bean. The girl in the picture is the friend I went with. It was a completely instantaneous and impulsive shot on both are parts. Like a pistol duel with cameras. If you look close enough, you can see my reflection in the Cloud Gate (official name). I don’t have the photo she took off me taking her photo but then, it can’t possibly be as interesting as the one I do have.

Meanwhile in…

Chicago: it was minus 40 degrees yesterday (factoring in wind-chill). The Uni didn’t have classes (pretty big thing for one which has declared snow days only twice in the last 33 years). I’m pretty bummed out about missing all this, even if it only meant sitting in my room all day, glumly staring out of the window.

 

Sunday’s newspaper: there featured an article about J. D. Salinger’s preferred south Indian dish—rasam vada. I’m a big fan of vada sambhar but my all time favourite remains rava masala dosa.

 

Postcrossing universe: none of my ‘first’ five postcards have reached their intended recipients. I’m worried (?) they’ll all expire and that will mean five less random surprises for me.

 

Samoa: the national airlines has introduced a fare system based on the passengers’ weights. I knew I couldn’t be the only who thought of this. My idea is slightly different—assign a fixed amount to each passenger and let them allot it between their weight and their luggage weight. This way I get to carry more stuff in my suitcase rather than in my fat cells. Who knows, this might help the fight against obesity?

 

Pesternomi: there are two shiny badges. One’s for the letter-writing-postcard-mailing challenge I hope to take in February (more on that later) and the other’s for WordPress’ zero-to-hero assignment. Both involve actual work on my part every day, and anything that does that is too good to pass up.

Winter is a Dying Month

It’s been a few days since I found out about the death of the Math Pirate. I’ve never met him, I’m probably didn’t even spot him once during my eight-month stint at UChicago, and yet I feel a deep sense of loss. It’s the abrupt, unforeseen end to the endless possibilities that hurt. I could have unknowingly enrolled for his class and been part of the Sally Gang. I could have screwed up the courage to scream “Yo Sally!” in class, maybe even gone during the office hours and found out something more about the man. Deaths like these hurt everyone, especially those who never ever get to experience the magic. It’s like the Grand Canyon being erased off the face of the earth before you get to see it. Or sometimes even before you know it existed.

 

Another Chicago great I could not meet before his death is Ronald Coase. I had been taught the Coase theorem in my Law and Economics class but the simplicity and brilliance of it didn’t really register, probably because I was too busy wrapping my head around the Nash equilibrium. Needless to say, I might be the only one in my class who didn’t mention him in the SoP when applying to the program at UChicago. At least Coase has left behind enough work that I can read. I will get my hands on ‘Tools of the Trade” but I dare say I’m going to understand much.

 

The death that hit me the most was of that of Vepa Sarathi. It was in my final year of law school and by then I had taken all the courses he offered (Property, Evidence) though I had barely talked to him. He would have turned 96 in a few months and I thought he would live forever. I kept putting off going for his office hours, thinking there was more time. Until there wasn’t. I have three of his books and a little part of him still lives in the margins of my notebooks. I still regret not talking to him though. The day he died was the day I realised that life is too short to be spent waiting for tomorrow. I had got be less risk averse and this decision led me to go on a white water rafting trip with four complete strangers a few days down the line. Every time I think of putting things off, I think of Vepa, walking stick in hand, eyes crinkling with laughter, and missed opportunities.

Happy Turkey Day!

I celebrated my first and only (till date) Thanksgiving in Chicago last year. The Dean of my program hosted a traditional dinner for all us international students at his house. There were lots of dishes and I remember eating sweet potatoes and rhubarb (cause I’m vegetarian, don’t ask me why) while chatting with the head librarian co-host. My most vivid memory of that night is spilling coffee on the carpet (and myself) and my batchmates from China clearing up the whole mess after sending me to the loo to clean myself. It’s this little act of kindness that will continue to stay with me. I don’t think I thanked them, or apologised to the Dean for soiling his carpet. Most of the evening was spent in coming up with a plan to take part in the shopping frenzy that would take place the next day. F and I decided to go to the outlet mall in Michigan city (the only one accessible by public transportation) and left for our respective room/ apartment by 6 pm. We had barely walked a block when it started raining. At first we decided to slug it out, unaware of the meteorological phenomenon that is Chicago weather. Eventually we gave up and got on one of the shuttles operated by the University through the night. It was pouring heavily by now, completely at odds with sunny morning that day had experienced earlier. The shuttle stopped in front of Regenstein library, the mandatory pit stop for all shuttle routes. The driver was nice enough to radio the driver of our next shuttle to find out when she would reach. Then we proceeded to ask him if we could wait inside the shuttle instead of outside in the rain. He laughed off the suggestion that he could even consider making us wait in the rain (where I come from, the drivers wouldn’t hesitate to throw us out once we had reached our destination). Needless to say, both of us reached our beds relatively dry and in high spirits.

The shopping expedition the next day was successful. Again we weren’t prepared when it started snowing in the morning. And the stories about the Chinese invasion of all Coach stores is true. Grown men clutching multiple handbags for mothers/sisters/girlfriends back home.

My ‘achievements’ over the Thanksgiving break (here’s the list I warned you I would make)-

Ate a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Check.

Participated in the mass shopping extravaganza that is Black Friday. Check.

Experienced the myriad moods of a Chicagoan day. Check.

Met wonderful people who I still give thanks for. Check.