Postcards from the past: Magic of Ramleela

They say that one must fulfil any promises given in writing for the fear of inviting gods’ (this is a plural since we have quite a few back where I come from) wrath. This is not really true and nobody had said it till I wrote it. But it does ring true. So as I promised in my last post, this one is going to be heart warming. I had a remarkably lucid moment the other day and I was inspired enough to come up with an idea for an umbrella series, “postcards from the past”, under which I will be posting vignettes from my time in India (all but last 12 years). I am not sure at this point if I will be able to come up with enough stories to justify calling it a series but I will try anyway. My intent will be to provide folks here with a prism through which to view Indian people and their culture.

Seeing as we are in the middle of the holiday season here in USA I thought I would describe a holiday tradition from my childhood. I have written about the Hindu festival of Diwali previously. Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama to his homeland after a 14 year exile. When I was growing up stage re-enactments of Rama’s story called Ramleela (literal meaning is Rama’s play) were performed throughout India. It was very popular back then but I am not sure how well it has survived to this day. Ramleela is basically a 10 day long public play (think nativity plays around Christmas for an analogy) designed to end on the day of the festival of Vijaydashmi (Vijay means victory and dashmi refers to the fact that the festival is on the tenth day of the lunar month). This festival, which precedes Diwali, celebrates Rama’s slaying of the demon king Ravana during the exile. You can refer to a somewhat humorous version of the story behind Ramleela in my post on Diwali.

Staging of Ramleela in my village was an annual tradition, which my cousins and I looked forward to with much glee and anticipation, not unlike children here looking forward to Christmas. The open air stage for the performance was set up on the corner of two unnamed dusty streets (most streets in India do not have any names, you find your way solely through landmarks and by asking around). One street was bounded by a big farm and the other by a swamp. It was the perfect setting for the production in a strange way. The stage was at most 3 blocks away from my house. Every evening after dinner we left wrapped up in shawls and blankets (it is a unique spectacle in fall and winter in Indian villages — people walk around covered in blankets!!) to ward off the evening winter chill. There were no seats of course. Most people would sit cross-legged on the street. Some of us would climb on the nearby temple wall crumbling down from neglect in order to get a better view. A guy on the side of the road roasted grains of corn on his cast iron pan (this is before I knew to call it pop-corn). Another vendor selling peanuts and other savory treats  was always around. After making sure that we had enough provisions for the night we would settle down, huddled close together under the open skies to watch the play.

It is important to describe the “ambience” of the play. This was a highly informal setting. We didn’t have to sit in silence. We would chat among ourselves, stretch our legs occasionally and enjoy the treats we had just bought. Some of the villagers would start makeshift fires on the side to warm themselves. The orange glow of the fire mingled with the fog that drifted in on some nights hinted at an unearthly presence.The open air stage was brightly lit and colorfully decorated. For us kids it was a magical occasion. Characters from one of our favorite stories had sprung to life and they were here to entertain us for ten nights straight. The fact that none of the actors were professionals added a charming and whimsical twist to the religious drama. In fact every year one or more of my uncles on my dad’s side had a starring role. My dad’s twin brother always played the lead role of Rama. The oh so dramatic musical fanfare was provided by a tabla player and a harmonium player. Each night between the acts there was an event just for the children. Little ones waited in line with their parents for their turn to be taken on the magic stage where one of the actors would pick them up and sing a soothing lullaby. Something very similar to how kids here go and sit in Santa’s lap and make a wish. Each night’s performance was usually two to three hours long at the end of which we walked back home sleepy and slightly achy but content in the knowledge that the fun will resume the next night.

Looking back at it all what I miss the most is the spirit of a community coming together. As we get ready to celebrate Christmas it is important to remind ourselves to not get wrapped up in wrapping presents so to speak but instead enjoy the coming together of friends and family. Happy holidays everyone.


Sunday Blues

We all get them from time to time. All of a sudden without any preamble it hits us like a ton of bricks and we feel that we are carrying all the burdens of the world on our puny little shoulders. It goes by many other names of course but most people will recognize it as Sunday Blues. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get the blues on other days but the impact is a little more heavy on Sundays. It is perhaps fitting then that I am writing about it on a grey and cold Sunday afternoon. Many years ago when I had first moved to Portland, blues used to visit more often than I would like to admit. I have spoken to enough people on this topic to know that it is a reasonably common occurrence and I am not the only one who is susceptible to this condition. I believe that at some level we are all aware of how alone we actually are in this world. Sunday Blues is just an acute awareness of that feeling of loneliness concentrated in a short amount of time.

Throughout the regular work week our jobs and other daily chores keep us busy. Friday evenings and Saturdays are typically spent with few friends that we are lucky to have. But Sunday is a nether state, almost like a transitional purgatory. It’s neither here nor there. On Sundays, we are usually on our own getting ready to face the world for another work week. There are no chores to keep us busy. There is just the spectre of beginning the weekly drudgery of work again. Almost involuntarily, our thoughts turn inwards. We are so alone that we can hear the tumult of our thoughts whirling inside our brain. And in that moment when our thoughts are the only things keeping us company, we start to indulge in a bit of soul-searching, trying to understand the meaning of our insignificant lives and wondering if there is any purpose to our lives at all? It is not unlike a weekly bout of existential crisis. I wonder if all of us carry in our DNA the loneliness and utter isolation our pre-historic ancestors must have felt. Maybe we suddenly channel those feelings when we are mentally alone. Or perhaps we are hit with a realization that in the vastness of the universe we are merely specks of microscopic dust floating about in space.

Everybody has their own versions of Sunday Blues I am sure. But I would venture that the trigger is the same — feeling of isolation. Human connection in the form of shared experiences is the nourishment for our soul. We are born alone, we die alone and if we are lucky we connect with a few fellow souls in the time that is given us. Perhaps we miss that on some Sundays and that maybe the simplest explanation for the blues. So I suppose we ought to be thankful for friends, family and loved ones for keeping us company. Without the warmth of human relationships our existence is devoid of its meaning and without that meaning we will all be living in loony bins singing loony tunes.

If any of you have felt something similar at some point in life, please share. And if you happened to devise some methods to keep the blues at bay share those as well. 

P.S: I promise that my next post will be more cheerful in keeping with the holiday spirit.

No Pain, No Gain — Nature and Nurture part II

In response to the nature vs nurture post one of the readers had a link to this article from New York Times (Thanks Mukesh): “Sorry, Strivers – Talent Matters”. Got me thinking again about nature and nurture (I suppose that was the intent anyway). I used to be parked firmly in the “talent” camp back in my immature callow days but thankfully over the years my views on the matter have become more nuanced. My assertion in fact is exactly the opposite to that stated in the article: Striving is all that matters.

If we are trying to predict “success” in any given sphere of life, we can divide the competing folks into 4 categories, those with: 1) No talent and lots of motivation, 2) Lots of talent and no motivation, 3) No talent and no motivation and lastly 4) Lots of talent and lots of motivation. Now if we define fulfilment in life as realization of one’s potential, numbers 1) and 4) will get to enjoy equally fulfilled lives. The actual material success for category 4) will probably be higher compared to that for category 1), so yeah talent matters. But you cannot say sorry strivers!! Categories 2) and 3) are the sorriest bunch of people, one might even say that 2nd category is by far the worst. We all tsk tsk when we meet people who are wasting their potential. By choosing not to strive, we give up our only chance of discovering true happiness in life.

What matters in our otherwise mundane existence on this planet is not where we get to but how we get there. We all need to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from our actions. The successes we achieve in life through the dint of our hard work taste so much the more sweeter for the labor and toil involved. The lessons we remember most in life are the ones we learn the hard way. Things that are handed to us on a platter somehow do not have the same meaning. We cherish the feeling of having “earned it”. Accomplished con artists and thieves will take no pleasure in robbing the blind so to speak. A tennis player with superior ability will get no enjoyment from beating a lowly opponent. The point being that we can get by in life easily by operating at just ~50% of our ability i.e without striving. That will be a very sorry existence however. Struggle plays a key role in achieving satisfaction in life. Striving is the key to thriving or no pain, no gain.

Hilbert and Behavioral Relativity

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be dazzled. I am going to do the unthinkable and analyze human behavior with the aid of mathematics. Please save the stones and arrows for last. David Hilbert was a brilliant mathematician during late 19th and early 20th centuries. He came up with this notion called a “Hilbert space”. In mathematical terms what it means is this: in a Hilbert space of “n” dimensions any vector (a line would be a vector in 2 dimensions) can be completely expressed in terms of “n” orthogonal (independent) “basis” vectors. If this has put you to sleep please wake up, the worst is already over. One simple analogy from everyday life that can shine light on this concept is the notion of primary and secondary colors. We know that primary colors (RYB: red, yellow and blue) cannot be created by mixing other colors. On the other hand we can create a variety of other colors by mixing the primary colors in different proportions. So in this Hilbert space of color, RYB are the “independent” entities (basis vectors) from which we can make any other color. Easy, right? We can apply the same concept to human behavior. If we could come up with a set of key behavioral qualities independent from one another each human being on the planet can be described with a different mixture of the said qualities. As you can guess the difficulty here lies in coming up with a complete set of independent qualities. Since this is just a humble blog post and not a doctoral thesis I am going to use 2 qualities to illustrate my point ( I ask all of you to respond with a set of qualities to create a complete picture). Basically we are making a very simplistic assumption that our behavior is limited to just 2 qualities. Let us say that the 2 qualities are “A” and “B” where A is our ability to be selfless and B is a measure of how introverted/extroverted we are. Then all human beings can be described as x*A and y*B, where both x and y can go from a scale of 1 to 10. In case of A, 1 means the person is completely selfish and 10 means the person is completely selfless. In case of B, 1 means an extremely introverted character and 10 means a social butterfly. The cool thing about human beings is that x and y are not constants. They can vary considerably depending upon who we are interacting with and the circumstances under which the said interaction takes place. Many people would go from 1 to 10 on the B scale (introvert-extrovert) through the simple expedient of imbibing alcohol. People who have difficulty talking to strangers can be extremely garrulous in the company of their friends and family. Same person can be an introvert in one person’s company and an extrovert in someone else’s. This is equally applicable to our 1st quality A. We may choose to do a selfless act when everybody is watching and be more selfish behind closed doors. We are talking about the same concept when we say one kind turn deserves another. If somebody does a selfless act it can spur us to be more selfless. If people around us are being selfish all the time we are likely to do the same.

The main point I wanted to make here is that human behavior is highly relative and thus variable as a result. This fact alone should encourage us to not rush to snap judgements about others and be more forgiving. Another important conclusion is that our behavior will necessarily be influenced by the kind of people we surround ourselves with (what is funny here is that this is what our parents told us all along anyway). If you are ambitious about life there is no point in hanging out with people who are just going to sit around and mope all day long. You can choose to be with people who bring out the best in you or people who will bring out the worst in you. The choice is yours. Enough said.

Nature vs Nurture

This is one of the most often asked questions about human behavior: what part of us is nature and what part nurture? Like every other behavioral question the answer to this one is the same: little bit of both. The natural response at this point is to ask why bother writing about it, answer seems simple enough. To which I say the answer is simple but there is a lot to learn by looking at the various scenarios in which either nature or nurture may dominate. I have also noticed in the past that this topic riles up people no end and that is as good a justification as any for writing about it. 

From a purely physical sciences stand point, we could look at a person as an entity born with certain attributes at time zero and as time goes by the said entity interacts with its environment in a fashion that is also a function of its’ time-zero attributes. These attributes in turn are modified by the environmental interactions. I have not said anything revolutionary here: we are born with certain traits, we are influenced by our surroundings and we grow and change. I am sure however that there are certain traits in all of us that have not changed one bit since we were born. That’s where genetics comes in. As I grow older it is very obvious to me that I really am my parents’ son. I can see for example that my irritation when people waste my time comes from dad and my emotional intuitiveness comes from my mom. We share our DNA with our siblings but more often than not our siblings are completely different people than ourselves (which is all for the best anyway).

We tend to lean on the side of the nature vs nurture question that makes us feel good about ourselves. We like to think that everything that is good in ourselves is something we worked on and everything that is bad we were born with. Incidentally we use the reverse logic when we are talking about other people. Let’s say you are an engineer and try to learn a musical instrument and fail, 9 times out of 10 you will say that you were not born with musical genes i.e you would say nature is the dominating cause of the failure. But if I asked you a similar question about your friend, you will say that your friend did not try hard enough.

We can frame our question in a slightly more specific manner to really get to the answer: is our DNA all there is to us? Hint hint: everybody should be saying no to this question. I guess I am taking nurture’s side after all. We are all born with a certain “potential”. What we end up doing with that potential is very much a factor of the values instilled in us by our parents or other parent like figures in our lives. These “nurturing” individuals in our lives are the ones who taught us empathy, compassion and helped trained our moral compass. Our whole society in fact is based on the assumption that with proper nurture we can make decent human beings out of anyone (excepting certain folk who may literally be born evil). Even from a more selfish standpoint this makes sense. We may never exceed our potential but our nurture will determine how close we get to fulfilling it.


Human Dignity

The genesis for this post lies in a simple question. The question is not simple by any means but it was put to me simply by a high school junior I mentor: What makes us human? Some say it’s vanity. The mere fact that we humans indulge ourselves with this question is proof enough. Others have said it is jealousy. This one trait could probably explain a whole gamut of human actions. We could throw other traits into the mix say compassion, love, cruelty and greed. Of course we possess all these traits to varying degrees but none of these really get to the heart of the matter at hand. I have been pondering this for last few weeks and have struggled to come up with a neatly packaged answer. So I decided to look at it from an opposite angle. Instead of asking what makes us human I asked myself what us inhuman? And the answer became clear as light of day (light of a warm summer day that is, not the gloom of a rainy winter Oregon afternoon): robbing a person of their dignity robs them of their humanity. In other words, dignity of the individual is at the essence of being human. Whatever do you mean by dignity O wise one I hear you say. Well hang tight, I am just getting started.

If we grant that we have a body and a soul, it follows that true dignity must encompass material as well as spiritual well-being. The material aspect requires access to basic necessities of life and control over one’s own body. Spiritual dignity is a combination of freedom of thought and freedom of expression. This is not as high brow as one might think. Food and shelter are the two most basic of human necessities. For all the progress that we have made as a race, a big fraction of our fellow human beings are hungry and without shelter. Hunger can drive a man insane and make animals out of decent human beings. People forced to beg on the streets have been deprived of their dignity. We should be thankful that state sanctioned slavery was abolished. Can you imagine any dignity in that? And yet there are people who tend to romanticize that part of history. That was a prime example of dehumanizing people by taking away any control over their own bodies. Modern day versions of slavery are well and alive though. Human trafficking goes on around the world without any abatement, primarily driven by illegal sex trade. This is a case where some humans are making a choice to act in an inhuman fashion thereby robbing others of their dignity and at the same shedding any vestiges of their own humanity. People deprived of material dignity can still retain dignity of soul however. Like Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. I think he was referring to the power of imagination. If we can cling to hopes of a better tomorrow it can make the material sufferings more bearable. Andy Dufresne was referring to the same concept in Shawshank Redemption when he was put in solitary confinement (btw solitary confinement is a barbaric punishment). In my view, the most inhuman thing we can do to a person is take away their right to think (imagine) and the freedom to express their thoughts. I cannot imagine any cruelty worse than this. No wonder that the freedom of speech is so sacrosanct in the United States’ constitution. The fear of loss of individual thought and expression has led to great works of arts centered around visions of dystopian society — Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World — are two works that immediately spring to mind. We are so traumatized by visions of a society where there is no concept of an individual and all our thoughts and actions are controlled and monitored. In 1984, there’s even a concept of “new speak” where certain words are eradicated from the language to remove concepts represented by these words. Can you imagine a bleaker existence than what is portrayed in these two works? It is also interesting to note that dignity of the spirit is very likely responsible for the fact that we are descended from Homo Sapiens (loosely translates as “wise man”) and not Neanderthals. The two existed side by side in ages of old but Homo Sapiens thrived and Neanderthals died away. By all accounts, Neanderthals were expert hunters and made sophisticated tools and were entirely capable of surviving in tough environments. Homo Sapiens on the other hand instinctively understood the importance of expression of thought i.e dignity of the soul.

Is there any lesson in here for all of us? Don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming. Can we establish a guiding principle for our everyday interactions with one another centered on the concept of dignity? Anytime we say or do hurtful things to those around us we are taking away part of their humanity. Anytime we display controlling behavior i.e try to place constraints on others’ thought process and actions we are in fact telling them to give up their humanity. Keep in mind that you are also losing your own dignity when you engage in such behavior. It is a clear lose lose situation if there ever was one. So dignify others and enhance your own dignity in the process. Now there’s a win win for everyone.

Anatomy of a blogger

This post is in response to the question that was put to me by several people: why are you annoying us with your writing? The truthful and simplest answer is that I have always wanted to write. It is only now that I have breached the barrier of arrogance where I feel that I have something worthwhile to say. But that’s not really a fun answer, is it? So as I am fond of saying, allow me to illuminate the dark corners of your brain. I have oodles of great thoughts in my head but unless these are out in the open they might as well not exist. You may disagree with the first part of that sentence but you cannot find fault with the rest. Perception specifically other people’s perception of you is your reality whether you like it or not. If you think you are fabulous and the world around you just doesn’t see it, you need to work to align the world’s view with your own instead of moping about it. As a good friend of mine never tires of saying: if a peacock danced in the forest and nobody was there to witness it, did it really happen? This blog is part of my attempt to make the world see my world view as well as see me as I see myself (that was a real tongue twister but let’s assume that it was alliteration). Most human actions share multiple motives at least for those with more than one brain cell, however. As with everything else, my motives are a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. The ugly bit is driven by pure self-aggrandizement and vanity. Through my writing I am performing my equivalent of the peacock dance i.e I am showing off and saying to the world — look at my bright feathers (or as Tom Haverford says in Parks and Recreation, I am peacocking). The good part is the  sheer joy of writing and the cathartic/therapeutic nature of this creative outlet that I have been blessed enough to discover. It really is a godsend  and could not have happened at a better time in my life.

The bad bit at least from your standpoint is that I suffer from delusions of grandeur (are there any other kind?). I think of myself as a philosopher and a dispenser of worldly wisdom. The word philosophy however induces heebie-jeebies in most people. It conjures visions of modern-day intellectuals sitting in their ivory towers dryly droning on and on about morality of human actions. They automatically assume a moral high ground from which they preach to the rest of us ignorant fools about our follies and foibles. Interestingly these people tend to have very rich and powerful friends and you never hear a judgement come out of their lips on their friends’ “indiscretions”. In essence their world view is warped and divorced from ground reality. I will give only one example (mostly because I am lazy to do more research on the topic): Bernard-Henri Lévy. He is a French public intellectual and recently was alarmed that the New York police manhandled his “friend” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who you will all remember was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel room. More recently, BHL has expressed his dismay at Gaddafi’s “barbaric” execution. Such are the weighty matters on which the elite intellectuals choose to exercise their self-proclaimed intellect on. OK, so I rambled here a bit but the point I am trying to make is that there is a distinct lack of real life philosophy out there that can help a regular individual deal better with his/her life. I am hoping that I can address some of that gap. You may very well ask what the hell makes me so special? Well, nothing per se but I do have a keen interest in the subject matter. I am always looking at my own life as well as of those around me, assessing the results of various actions and choices made, to come up with a generic framework to guide me through life. I have struggled a lot in trying to discern my place in the world and to establish a sense of belonging. Many times I have felt completely unmoored and unhinged and it’s a rather terrible feeling to experience (I cannot resist making a geeky connection here with particles in Brownian motion). My personal struggles have given me a unique perspective which I hope others will be able to benefit from. And that is the real truth behind the genesis of this blog.

In case you thought that I am letting you off easy here is my first practical advice: cut yourself some slack and develop a sense of humor. This is of course only applicable to the individuals who insist on very strict standards for their own behavior and in turn use that as a self-righteous reason to control the behavior of others around them. Once you allow yourself wiggle room for error it is easier to do the same for other people (charity as they say begins at home). This has the advantage of stopping you from fixating on what everybody else is doing wrong and you can finally look at yourself and make positive changes. Similarly a sense of humor lets you bounce back from tough situations in life. Having a sense of humor does not mean making fun of everybody else, it is the ability to laugh at yourself and not looking at life in its apocalyptic seriousness. A lack of sense of humor will invariably lead you to miss out on small joys of life. And contrary to what you may have heard it really is not about grandiose accomplishments. Fulfilment of your life in the end hinges on your ability to appreciate the small things in life. Peace out.

Diwali Musings

The hindu festival of Diwali this year is today i.e Oct 26th (almost all religious holidays in India are based on the lunar calendar, so the Julian Calendar dates move around each year). NPR did a little segment on Diwali this morning that filled me with nostalgia and a sudden urge to stuff myself with Indian sweets. And I thought why not write about it also while I am at it. Diwali means festival of lights and it is like 4th of July, christmas and thanksgiving rolled into one. The story behind it is immortalized in Ramayana, one of the two great epic hindu mythologies (many religious nuts of course consider these factually accurate), the other one is Mahabharata which is better known of the two outside India. The story centers around Rama, Vishnu’s (Vishnu is one part of the holy trinity of 3 major gods of hinduism: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) incarnation on earth. Rama is sent to exile for 14 years with his dutiful wife Sita (and she is very dutiful) but since he is so fabulous his step brother Laxmana tags along presumably for fun of the jungle. While enjoying their happy idyllic existence in the wilderness they come across the monkey-god Hanuman, who literally puts Rama and Sita on a pedestal. It was all going swimmingly for a while but what story is complete without a dark villain. Now the only people with a darker skin tone than the Indians in that part of the world are the Sri Lankans (wonderful buddhist island nation which I have not had the pleasure of visiting yet). So of course our villain in the story, Ravana, had to be from there. So the swarthy Ravana kidnapped Sita and took her to Sri Lanka with him. He sure did travel a long way to get her, however it’s not quite clear what he was doing so far from home. Anyway, the large monkey army commanded by Hanuman built a bridge on the sea separating India and Sri Lanka. It was named Rama Setu (setu means a bridge). White folk call it Adam’s bridge since Adam is responsible for everything in white christian view of the world. So the bridge gets built, Rama’s army crosses into Sri Lanka and after a long and fiery battle involving fancy chariots and futuristic missiles Ravana is killed. By sheer coincidence, fourteen years are almost up by this time and the exiles are finally eligible to re-enter their hometown. The town folk went wild in anticipation of this homecoming and they lit little clay lamps all over town to welcome their hero.

The celebratory tradition has survived thru the ages and it is one of the most fun holidays anywhere. People usually give their homes a makeover around Diwali. When I was growing up we used to re-paint our house before Diwali. Everybody gets dressed up in their “Diwali best” and multitudes of sweets and treats are exchanged. Every house is lit up like a christmas tree both with electrical lights and with traditional clay lamps and candles. The biggest bang literally is saved for the last when everybody creates their own personal fireworks show and the night ends in a thick cloud of smoke.

Aside from the material joys, this is also an occasion for spiritual renewal. I will not bore you with philosophy on this occassion other than to say that this year’s Diwali has an extra significance for me since I was finally able to conquer my demons and start my own renewal process. I wish the same for everyone else.

Happy Diwali!!

Thinkers and Tinkerers

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of people in this world: thinkers and tinkerers. I bet you love this overly simplified categorization of humanity. So to appease all you haters, let’s break it down into four instead of two: Pure thinkers, pure tinkerers, combination of both and those who have neither of these attributes. Obviously the last category of people are only contributing to global warming (meaning only breathing), so less said about them the better. A lot of you might think of yourself as too complicated of a person to fit into my neat little categories. My response to that is: don’t be vain, stop whingeing and read on. Categorization of any kind is by nature simplistic and I am using that only as a tool to provide a general framework for discussion, it is not a conclusion by any means (if you thought that sounded clever, I am in absolute agreement with you). OK so let’s start from extremes first and we will end up in the middle. Tinkerers at their very core basically like working with their hands and are fascinated with the “how” question. Edison is one of history’s well-known tinkerers. John Dyson, the British inventor of fancy vacuum cleaners, would be a modern example in the same spirit. On the other hand, thinkers indulge themselves in thought experiments and like to come up with theories, asking the “why” question; great philosophers from ancient Greece and theoretical physicists from the early part of 20th century (Einstein is the most renowned example) are two specific types of the thinker variety. I am certainly not implying that tinkering is thoughtless and thinking is passive. Any successful tinkerer has to put a lot of thought to see his/her vision take physical shape. Theoretical thinking on its own may appear passive but it can drive stupendous material/physical advances in society. The actual process of thinking can also benefit from tinkering. I personally get my best ideas while I am busy doing something in the yard or around the house. While my hands are busy my thought gets sharpened and some concepts/ideas that I maybe normally resistant to can gradually enter my brain through a sort of side door. Edison apparently tried hundreds of different materials before he came up with the material that could work as the filament for his lamp. He could have shortened his labors by theorizing a bit more. As we can see, there’s an obvious overlap between the two categories, the benefits of using one facet to help the other are also apparent. What is the difference then that’s leading me to create two separate categories? I don’t think it has anything to do with other personality traits or preferences. For example, it is not obvious whether a tinkerer would be an extrovert or an introvert, a person who likes the outdoors may be a tinkerer or a thinker. I believe the real explanation is rooted in the relative sense of joy derived from the above mentioned activities. A tinkerer will derive more happiness and satisfaction from the actual implementation of his/her little schemes whereas a thinker would be happiest during the actual scheming phase and would probably get bored with the “real” stuff. Most people will derive enjoyment from tinkering and thinking under different circumstances. You may like doing your thinking with somebody else but perhaps you would be tinkering when alone or vice versa (this is not a double entendre). As I mentioned earlier I am more of a thinker than a tinkerer. I am usually thinking about something (That may explain the look of boredom on my face when around other people).

So who do you think you are — thinker or tinkerer?

Cause and Effect: Anatomy of a tortured genius

The topic for this post took shape in my mind on an unusually sunny fall sunday afternoon while drinking at my neighborhood establishment (I was eating also in case you think I am a drunk). Now I am neither tortured nor a genius by any stretch of imagination but I am uniquely qualified to comment on this topic solely by virtue of my like of a good pint in the afternoon. So here’s a teaser for you: If two events A and B happen simultaneously does it imply a causality between A and B or is there another event C that caused both A and B? I can give you millions of examples, ok maybe two or three, to illustrate my point. Obama became president (event A) and the economy slid into depression (event B), the two events were directly related to President Bush’s general incompetence (event C). The republicans will have you believe otherwise of course i.e A led to B. Pardon my blatant use of my blog to broadcast my political leanings (you will never hear a republican apologize for this by the way) but you are probably asking yourself what the hell has this got to do with price of tea in China? Allow me to expound. The concept of a tortured genius, one who abuses alcohol and all manners of drugs (event A) while still producing exquisite art (event B) fascinates us like no other (I am limiting my scope of inquiry here to artistic genius.) We tend to think of artistic creativity in a naively romantic fashion: all we need to do is go drink absinthe in one of the Parisian cafes frequented by Hemingway and voilà we can make the bells toll at our whim. Unfortunately or fortunately this is not the case as yours truly can attest to. So this is a case where A and B are in juxtaposition from our vantage points but if we try to do A in the hope of making B happen it ends in failure. Main exhibit: the multitude of so-called artists who are to be found dime a dozen in any watering hole. Now as any artist worth his/her salt will tell you, the realization of one’s creative expression comes after endless trials and failures and often involves painstaking discipline that’s hidden from the public eye. Now if A does not lead to B or vice versa what is the C that’s responsible for both A and B? In other words, the correct question to ask is what’s driving (C) the artist to drink (A)? And the answer has to be the force behind the artists’ creative output (B) as well. I believe the answer is excessive neurological activity or “too much thinking” in the artist’s head, which is not easy to control. Have you ever had a thought in your head that you struggled to give shape to? What if you had hundreds of these thoughts crisscrossing your brain? What do you do about that? You either find a way to express these jumble of thoughts which is what art is or it will drive you to drink or worse. In extreme cases you may need to do both. Use of alcohol or drugs helps in slowing down the activity in your nervous system in turn allowing you to channel your thoughts, thereby enabling the creative output that provides you relief.

Moral of the story: An artistic genius will most likely abuse mind altering substances but the said abuse does not an artistic genius make.


I realize that I maybe oversimplifying things a bit but I think I have captured the essence. Thoughts? Comments?