Leap Day

There was no way I would miss having a timestamp that said February 29 on this blog. I don’t think I’ve posted on a leap day in the past, although law school has given me the opportunity to see one already before this.

The past three days were filled with mid-semester exams – and now that those are done, I realize I’m closer to the end of law school as an undergraduate journey than anything else. It’s mind-boggling to me that I will be a lawyer qualified to practice in India [not admitted to the Bar] in under 2 months. How lovely is that?

But that’s for another post.

Today’s post is about making the most of this extra day. I genuinely think I’ve done that. I’ve been trying to reset my sleep cycle which means I’ve stayed awake for the full day [since 12AM] and I’m looking forward to sleeping tonight. I used those extra 8 hours to binge-watch Formula 1’s amazing Drive to Survive show on Netflix. Then I watched India v. New Zealand and followed Karnataka v. Bengal.

And then, I read. I’m so glad to be able to read fiction books again after exams. Being transported to another world is outstanding.

I’m happy to have these extra 24 hours in 2020. I know where I’d like to be when the next one of these rolls around in 2024. Time will tell if that happens – and I cannot wait for that to come along.

Holding a Fountain Pen

My left-handedness has made this world a strange place to navigate. This comes with everyday things – including the use of scissors and nailcutters. The most frustrating thing I have to overcome though, genuinely, is the art of writing. There are so many obstacles as a left-hander. Desks in science labs are always on the wrong side. Spiral bound books affect your ability to write smoothly. You can’t see what you’ve written before because your gargantuan hand and the angle you hold pens in covers everything you write. It’s very frustrating. As a child, I used to come home with black hands because my hand would smudge lead from my pencil all over. It was awful.

When I graduated to using fountain pens, I started to discover angles at which I could make this art form of writing work reasonably enough. I practiced writing every day, using the opinion-editorial pieces from newspapers as things I would write out. It got me into the habit of reading the news, improved my handwriting and improved the speed of my writing – which is still devastatingly slow.

My handwriting went through several iterations of cursive before settling on what it is today. In Grade 9, my mother suggested I switch over to black ink and write straight and small cursive. In Grade 11, I rebelled by writing in the slopiest cursive imaginable. My cursive today sits at a pleasant 45 degree angle to the line I write on. Sometimes it goes even further.

All of this context is because this morning, I started studying for tomorrow afternoon’s examination. I realized, in that process, that I hadn’t picked up a pen all year – till today. All notes I’ve taken have been digital. Including the notes I take at meetings. So today was the first time I dusted off the pen, filled it with ink – scratched on multiple pieces of paper to get the ink flowing and started writing again.

Jee whiz is my handwriting terrible. In a way, that’s a good thing – it’ll mask some of the faffery I am bound to do in tomorrow’s exam. In other ways, it’s not so good. Maybe the next three days will be the duration in which I make a return to neat handwriting.

Exams Are Postponed

I slept really late last night, apropos my terrible sleep cycle (am I using apropos correctly?). The aim was to wake up this morning and begin studying – a task that would have fixed the sleep cycle. I need to be wide awake between 3 and 4:30pm, which is the time I’ll be writing exams, and I desperately wanted to do that today, to get into the habit of things. Except, I woke up and saw an e-mail on my phone that said exams had been postponed by a day and promptly went back to sleep. In fact, most of what I can remember from the day is sleeping. The other part is watching YouTube videos and reading. I’ve got 4 hours left in the day, in which I aim to start studying. We shall see how productive that ambition is in some time.

I can’t recall when my exams were postponed last. I remember there being some discussion around the postponement of exams owing to a senior national leader’s passing a year or so ago. The atmosphere on campus was this crazy blend of celebrating the fact that we may be getting a day off; when instead we should have been in a state of national mourning or such.

Before that, I don’t think exams at school were ever postponed. I’m the kind of person that stresses out about exams so I would have absolutely detested them getting postponed or advanced when they were given a designated date. Today, however, knowing that this is the last set of mid-semesters I will likely write, I’m absolutely okay with the postponement. It doesn’t affect me too much.

I would imagine the juniors at our University are less than pleased.

Reading the Obama White House

Introduction

In the past 4 years, since Donald Trump took over the Oval Office, I’ve been intrigued by the circumstances that got him there. I’ve missed having President Obama in power. There are only a handful of instances where the policies and politics of America has a direct impact on my life as an Indian. I’ve missed having President Obama because of the optics of everything and the image he projected of America. There was a quiet, commandeering strength about him, as opposed to the 3am twitter updates that President Trump (still not used to this) offers up. The result of this has been a lot of reading about America, and about Obama himself – and what the White House is like and what it represents. I was interested in understanding how Obama forged a White House in his image, and what Presidents do once they leave – which set me forth on a journey in reading several books. I’ll leave ratings and links to these books below, but here are some things I observed that were common through these narratives.

Most of these books are memoirs written by former Obama White House staffers. A few disclaimers:

  1. There are more books describing the Obama White House I haven’t read;
  2. I have read books presenting arguments which criticize the Obama White House; and
  3. I have not read books about previous White Houses. My experience with the other White Houses come from History reports and pop culture.

The Books

  1. Ben Rhodes – The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House – *****
  2. Dan Pfeiffer – Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump – ****
  3. Alyssa Mastromonaco, Lauren Oyler – Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House – ****
  4. Katy Tur – Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History – ***

The Stories 

I loved reading through each of these because they portrayed an incredibly personal narrative of some of the most defining moments in the last few years under Obama’s presidency and during the 2016 Elections. There’s a ton of insight that would have ordinarily been available only if White House staffers were entitled to maintain personal twitter feeds during their time in the White House.

Alyssa Mastromonaco and Dan Pfeiffer write the books that will make you laugh about Obama. Everyone knows President Obama had a great sense of humour, knew how to make people smile (and when), and both these individuals tap into a goldmine of memories they’ve created with Obama front and center to tell you the kind of things you wouldn’t have expected from the Commander-in-Chief, including comments on people’s wardrobes.

If Mastromonaco and Pfeiffer write about Obama the person, Ben Rhodes takes Obama the professional and gives you insight into that separation of powers (do you see what I did there?) Something I’ve wondered about is the kind of toll that certain decisions and politics takes on the personal lives of those in power – and how personal lives actually unfold with so much chaos and noise all around you all of the time. Rhodes tackles this issue-by-issue, almost – constructing a wonderful timeline of everything Obama & him experienced in the White House. In each chapter, Rhodes explores what Obama the President and Obama the person felt – where they coincided, and where they separated, and the burden this placed on him. At all points, the book exudes this warmth that Obama clearly imparted on all of the members of his Service – individuals who still feel privileged to have been a part of things.

And if Rhodes gives you that insight, into that warmth, Katy Tur is able to write about the exact opposite – the narrative that Trump was able to tap into in order to unite the country not through action, but through words – none of which exuded warmth and inclusion, but exclusion at its highest.

Concluding Thoughts

These make for good reads if you’re interested in the changing face of American politics. You’ll take to them far easier if you have bias, I think – as with most pieces of literature. My bias shines through here.

Ideas (and Inherent Value)

Over the last few months, I’ve had a lot of time to think about a range of things in my life. A large number of these thoughts have centered around the passage of time: what I’ve let go of from the past, where I am in the present, and what I’d like to be doing in the future. In the middle somewhere, I got very frustrated with myself because I kept looking to a benchmark I created and manufactured for myself in the future, without focusing much on where I am and what I want to be doing in the present. The purpose of these thoughts felt very useless. I didn’t fully recognize why I was thinking about them and where they were coming from, or what role they were playing.

I’ll illustrate this. I enjoy writing. I’d always think about – and get all these incredible ideas about what I could be writing next. Things I want to read and research about – thoughts I hadn’t seen expressed on any other medium I had read. Things that I would look forward to reading about and creating a piece about. Then I’d think about them more: crystallize plans for how I’m going to go about writing these pieces, what source material I’d pick up. Ultimately, I’d procrastinate. Most of these ideas were time-sensitive, they were highly relevant in the context of an event taking place at the time. So although I’d get around to all the reading I wanted to do, I’d never actually get around to the writing. Why? Because I felt it wasn’t as relevant anymore. This put my thinking and my ideating at a precarious position for me. It placed all of my thinking right in the middle of thought and action. See: the reading is always an excellent takeaway, but the writing would have been even better.

So I’ve been thinking about why these ideas, especially the unfinished ones, those unclaimed ones that lie in the back of your brain, matter. Since January, I’ve progressed to using OneNote over Google Keep to keep track of things in life. Not because I want to get hyper-organized, but more for this one experiment. Mentally, I decided that I would write down every grand idea I had. I’d jot them down and categorize them. I’d spent all of the thinking time writing. Even all these thoughts I had about reading plans – I’d type them out as I was thinking them.

This has led to a lot of random notes, including one that says “Read a book” under a heading that says “Cars”. I do not remember the idea I had anymore, nor do I have context apart from a time-stamp. For the most part though, the notes are reasonably contextualized. They’re almost a transcription of that little voice in my brain that talks to me for most of the day, so they’re reasonably accurate in depicting my thoughts at any given point of time.

What I’ve measured out is that for every 10 ideas or notes I write down, I execute 1 of them. The ones I execute are often the ones I execute immediately after ideating them and writing them down, ones that energize me enough not to procrastinate that idea. So, jumping straight into things helps me.

So, what’s the value of those other 9?

I’ve read back all these notes I’ve taken, and I see so much processing happening. For me, ideas stem out of sensory cues for the most part. Most of my ideas come from things I read, with some of them coming from things I hear. I think the value of these ideas I have just lies in the fact that it means I’m processing some of what I’m hearing and seeing. Then there’s the other aspect of things. I find that several of these ideas are interconnected, so there’s a lot of synthesis taking place – and a lot of connection of random pieces of information I would have spotted on two ends of the internet.

Of course, the value of having 10 ideas is that maybe 1 translates into action.

All of this thinking ended up with more thinking. Should ideas have value at all? Can’t they just be that: ideas, without anything attached to them, normatively?

The definition of an idea, as a noun is: a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.

Reading that definition pretty much answered that question for me.

It’s definitely possible. The value of an idea doesn’t rest in its conclusion, or on the action you take at the culmination of ideating. It’s in the ideating itself, and the application of mind that goes into thinking or suggesting, or figuring out a possible course of action for anything.

Which means I could have avoided writing all my thoughts down for a whole month if I had read that definition first.

Optics: Red Carpet Treatment

On today’s visit to Ahmedabad, all I could notice was how much development had taken place since my last visit there (which was on Wednesday). It caught me off-guard. There were lights put up at every single bus station I passed. I saw metro stations and their pillars being painted and decorated with the colour scheme the Amdavad Metro is going to rock at some point. There were new ‘walls’ and ‘gates’ up at different parts of the city, and several posters featuring the Donald and our own Prime Minister. All of this is essentially the equivalent of someone cleaning up their room in order to impress a visitor or give them the idea of someone living a super-organized life. It felt very pretentious to me.

The Municipal Corporation and the Government is spending a lot of money on this. I have a few concerns. I’m worried that the spending and the cleaning-up hasn’t been thought through: that all the money spent is not being spent in a sustainable manner. Why is this a source of concern? Because unsustainable expenditure by the Government, to me, always feels like money that is wasted. For example, they’re planting flowers in garden patches in the middle of the highway. I’m wondering whether they’ll spend for it’s upkeep after this State visit that’s taking place.

I’m all in favour of the red carpet treatment. Optics matter in this day and age (irrespective of whether or not you personally favour them; I don’t). We could, however, be spending less money on optics to be constructed overnight if we were sustainably spending on optics, or if we were actually living the ideal life we’re trying to portray this city lives out.

On Writing

This afternoon, I read Paul Graham’s latest essay, on “How to Write Usefully“. It had an extremely intriguing title which drew me in almost instantaneously, and then went on to explain the characteristics of a “useful” essay. I love that premise. I love Paul Graham, and his work, and more often than not, I’ve found myself in agreement with his views. On this occasion though, I only love this piece of writing if I agree with the premise that there is such thing as a “useful” essay. To me, that automatically contemplates the existence of an essay that is not “useful”. As minutes passed when I thought about this, I recognized that I found this premise one that I struggled to agree with in its entirety.

The piece is great only if the purpose of your writing is for your writing to be “useful” to someone – and you’re writing with that purpose in mind. For me, however, writing isn’t about it being useful to anyone except myself. It provides me with an opportunity to express myself and my ideas in a manner that I want to, and enables me to reflect on things I think about privately on a public forum. I enjoy that. Sometimes this reflection is helpful to people. Other times it’s not. It couldn’t matter less to me.

In a convoluted sense, I know I’ll be following the principles he outlines when I’m writing a piece where my sole intention is for it to be useful. Other times I’m going to write as I please.

Learning the Kannada Script

So tomorrow is International Mother Language Day, as declared by UNESCO. No, this isn’t a WhatsApp forward – and even if it was, it would be one of those rare ones which were true. Tomorrow is also a holiday at University, and as a result, one of my professors decided we’d celebrate the designated celebration day today. The best part about this is that he didn’t reveal his master plan to us immediately. Usually, he begins class with a positive thought for the day – something to catch our attention. Today, however, he played us this video at the start of class:

I’ve enjoyed listening to this song for a few years now, ever since I discovered it. Ever so often I learn some new trivia about it. As soon as it started to play, I discussed with my deskmate how it was written by Piyush Pandey: someone whose work at Ogilvy I admire a lot. We weren’t really taken aback by this change in routine by our professor – although he felt we should be. Once he declared why he had done it though (to show off the kind of diversity of tongues we have in India), we were stunned, and rapturous applause could be heard in our section. He then asked us all to greet him in our mother tongues: initiating a competition between the classes in our batch. We indulged him. I had to be prompted to speak in Kannada because I was put on the spot and I wasn’t entirely sure how to say “have a nice day” in Kannada. It was something that bought me some shame for a few seconds before my brain switched wiring to think in the language.

I love Kannada. It’s given me so much over the years. I don’t think I held an affinity or love toward the language till I moved to University. It was here that I discovered how much I missed hearing the language being spoken all around me. That led to some excellent things, including friendships in which only Kannada is spoken. I picked up Kannada because I heard it being spoken around me on one of my vacations, and my Kannada knowledge is limited to my ability to speak it in bits and pieces. I can’t speak the fancy Kannada – the spashtu version that the literary figures in my family talk in. I weave in English whenever I feel like and rarely follow the traditional grammar rules.

I can’t read or write though, so the script looks like flying popcorn to me too. Most Devanagiri scripts do.

However, I was adamant to change that. Today seems like a good enough day to announce this to the world, but I’ve been teaching myself how to read and write the language. I purchased a few copywriting books – the ones that kindergarteners use, and started to follow a few Kannada accounts on Twitter. I’m also indulging in my family group a little more and reading through random Kannada messages they send. I can’t understand most of the letters yet, but identifying the shapes I do know, and making their sounds, is enough for now.

The goal is to be able to gain enough proficiency with the script so I read Kannada literature one day. Then I’ll move onto another language.

 

Ubermensch

Zarathustra defined this person as someone who was willing to risk it all to save humanity. Today, however, I had a pleasant encounter with someone who was literally an Ubermensch: someone working for Uber. I had gone to Ahmedabad to learn things, do errands – and the return trip was halted thanks to a few canceled rides. On getting a cab, therefore, I just felt gratitude and an immediate rush to sit in the vehicle and get going. I wasn’t in a particular hurry or anything. There were no deadlines awaiting me on campus. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The evening was marked aside for hobbies and things I had procrastinated – things I would complete in my own sweet time. I was ready to sit in the car, listen to some music, fall asleep – wake up on campus and get going again.

That was not to be. Instead, I was greeted by the biggest smile, called “Tejasbhai” right off the bat. Thus began my 45 minutes with Iqbal. He initiated conversation: asking me where I was from and what I knew of my home city – and proceeding to talk to me about Uber itself. I’ve held a longstanding fascination and admiration for the company, and when driver-partners are willing to engage in conversation, I try to understand their motivations and the company culture as much as possible. From my experience thus far, most driver-partners are disillusioned by the model at present, but stick with it because they’ve committed to it. A large portion of their discontent stems from the fact that when Uber rolled out in India, the company paid out several incentives – and made promises of continuous earning streams that would match this throughout the time that a driver-partner was registered with the application. However, as time passed by, and Uber gained enough of a driver-base to no longer have to spend as much as they were on driver-partner retention/attraction, everything faded away. Drivers’ earnings dropped. A lot of things have changed over the years internally as well, and drivers’ have complained about the way their requests and complaints get handled.

Today, however, Iqbal acknowledged that this may be the case for several individuals, but had never been the case for him personally. He told me his story: that there were bad customers, bad ratings, and weird interactions with the company, but that these were in the minority, and were a rarity. More than 90% of his interactions with Uber were fine – on all sides. When I pressed him about his motivations, he told me two things: first, the freedom & independence that Uber gave him, and second, the kind of job he did earlier, and how this was way better. I agreed on both fronts, but I was curious about earnings, so I asked him about them directly – since we had built a rapport. Iqbal explained something that has stuck with me throughout the day.

He explained, quite simply, that Uber was the kind of application where you got as much out of it as you put into it. You spend more hours driving, accept trips regularly, don’t cancel on them – and treat customers well – and you’ll get paid high amounts, be treated well by the company. The minute you start mucking around and acting picky about taking short trips, or rejected destinations – the company knows something’s most definitely up. That affects how they look at your profile, and by extension – you.

To me, the reason this stuck with me is because it’s translatable to so much of life. We all get what we put into life. Every day. Like Iqbal said: sometimes it’ll suck. But 90% of it turns out alright eventually. It motivated me enough for the evening & I didn’t procrastinate any of the work I had any further.

In fact, I’m still doing some right now.

I tipped Iqbal – and I hope that Uber will ensure the tip reaches him. I learned a lot from this Ubermensch.

Not Done Yet

Ever so often, for all of the freedoms that final year gives us – there are some consistent reminders that we aren’t done yet. That we’re close to finishing this entire journey that we started, but that there’s so much to go before we conclude that journey – close this chapter, so to speak. This past week seemed to have given us too many reminders of that – and this upcoming week appears to be doing that too. I’m not a fan of that.

Last week we sat for 4 hours of class every single day. Our timetables are super flexible, given that everyone is in-house faculty, and that we – for the most part at least, stay on campus. That means that every evening, or even just a few minutes before class starts, you can be intimated of a timetable change. For the most part, in the last week, we got intimations around 8pm the previous day. However, there was this one day that I was particularly excited to have some relief from the boring mood 4 hours of class put me in – and I was on my way to eat breakfast in the mess when I discovered that class had in fact been moved around to accommodate 4 hours.

This week features submissions: the first of this semester – and most certainly, not the last. We’re getting reminder e-mails about deadlines (and multiple reminder e-mails). Faculty are changing instructions in some subjects at the last minute. It’s all the usual stuff I’ve grown to expect from University as a result of the last 4 years. Just a little unfortunate to be experiencing it again. I’m definitely going to celebrate the final set of submissions I put through on this campus. If nothing, with a milkshake at least.

I’m definitely more jaded and tired this week (on a comparison to last week). I feel like sleeping more – and I can afford to indulge myself in it, but it feels really boring to sleep through when I can be doing so much more.

Like, write.

Gatecrashing

If you’ve followed my life along, something you must be aware of is how much I struggle to describe and introduce people to each other. I’m not the greatest at explaining how I know someone – especially when they’re family friends, or people I know through other individuals, and quite often I’ll struggle through variants of introductions before finally just saying their name. My social circle is a big web which strictly affirms the principle behind the six degrees of separation, and that interweaving makes introductions all the more difficult.

I wrote this introductory paragraph after thinking about how to explain a family friendship to you folks; before deciding to skip past explaining the relationship.

Last evening, I had the good fortune of catching up with family friends over dinner. The circumstances of the meeting were extremely amusing to me – they were in town for a wedding, so I was hopeful of meeting them after their festivities were done. Instead, I was invited to join in, getting a free meal and my first experience of attending a function where I know nobody – barring my family friends. It was fabulous. To me, it affirmed how much time and energy goes into trying to figure out where to meet people – and in making plans, rather than concentrating on the prime reason to meet someone – just the act of meeting them and wanting to catch up.

Relationships like these demand preservation. Not through photographs, blog posts, or memories. Just through the act of being present when presence is possible.

Weekend Mastery

Mastering a weekend, to me, is the art of telling yourself that you’ve got two days to catch up on everything you need to catch up on – and not beginning till Sunday evening, before it’s too late and it’s the Monday. At least, that’s been the story of my weekend thus far. It may improve a little over the next couple of hours, but even if it doesn’t, and this is all my weekend is – I have loved every minute of it. I’ve slept a lot, managed to read a fair number of books. Life is swell.