Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lines In The Sand

I read a series of essays in the NYT Style section yesterday. They weren't particularly well written or compelling pieces, but they dealt with an interesting concept - the luxuries that people can't or won't give up in the face of economic duress.

My sense is that luxury has taken on a new meaning in the last couple of weeks. Part of the reason is the conviction that the 'Gilded Age' is over. Fabulous wealth (once passe) is now crass, even vulgar. It follows that luxury in these difficult times is not only an affront to good taste, but also morally suspect.

More importantly, in a post 26/11 world, luxury seems not only frivolous but also woefully inadequate. I used to believe that education, reading, and an appreciation for the arts enhanced life. I believed that taste, judgment and elegance were indices of personal growth and refinement. At the nub of these beliefs lay my conviction that a life well lived, and tastefully lived, could serve as insulation or protection against the ugliness of the world. But when you realize that death is not impassive, but often brutal, it's difficult to believe that things, no matter how expensive and beautiful, are truly worth having, acquiring, and enjoying.

In spite of my personal misgivings, gloomy economic forecasts and a subdued festive season, I am going to draw my own line in the sand. Which activity or expense, no matter how ridiculous, do I refuse to compromise on? Which is the one minor luxury I won't sacrifice to good sense? The answer is - cappucinos.

Yes, it's true. I drink 3-4 cups of tea and maybe 1-2 cappucinos a day. When I'm out with friends, I choose coffee over beer, even food. And while I havent actually done the math, I am pretty sure that coffee accounts for a significant chunk of my monthly expenditure. I also know that in India, people could buy meals for what I spend on a cuppa.

This is not even about a voracious appetite for caffeine - I rarely drain my mug. Moreover, according to a friend, cappucinos are a waste because you can eat a dessert instead and imbibe the same amount of calories. (Note: Said friend is a pastry chef)

But I like cappucinos. I like knowing that I am out, with someone I want to spend time with, and that we have something to talk about. I like that my senses aren't fogged by alcohol, that there are no distractions and that it is enough to be there, in that moment, with someone, and to have a good time. At work, the cappucino is my attempt to buy a few minutes of calm before I head back to the desk to take calls, answer mails and chase deadlines.

In sum, then, my last stand amounts to a coffee. It's not much. But my cappuccino fixation isn't about cappucinos at all. It's about the experience of slowing down and unwinding. It's not a luxurious product by any standards, but it buys a wonderful feeling. Ultimately, a 'line in the sand' is about doing something because you can, and because you want to. It's something you do for yourself inspite of the slashed paycheck or the diminishing job prospects. It's irrational, but you don't feel you need a justification. Perhaps luxury is not so much about objects as it is is about indulgence, no guilt attached.

So, what's your line in the sand?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Apropos Of Nothing

For reasons unknown, at around 2.30 AM a couple of nights ago, I remembered that my boss once told me that she hadn't been able to bring herself to read a book. Ever. My bemusement, muted at the time the comment was actually made, seemed much sharper at that unearthly hour. So, at 2.30 AM, I found myself wondering - what does it say about a person if she doesn't like to read? And why does this matter so much to me?

I tried answering this question by wondering what I would be, or who I would be, without my love for reading. Let me clarify - I'm an enthusiast, but there's a lot of great writing I haven't read, and a lot of contemporary work that I steer clear of for entirely nebulous reasons, such as - "I don't think I can sink my teeth into this." Or "I don't like that cover." And there was a time when I started working when I couldn't bring myself to get through anything that made the feeblest demands on my intellect. But for the most part, I've been the kid with the book sitting peaceably in the corner, developing myopia simply because I read too much when too young. Reading has been a given, like breathing.

Looking back, I feel reading helped me learn how to empathize, to appreciate that there is an emotional, social and intellectual world beyond my own. I don't mean that this awareness came pre-packaged, but even at the age of 6, I was aware that there were people like Elizabeth, Nancy Drew, Bess, George, the Three Investigators, Fatty and Beth. They weren't like me, they did things differently, and they didn't inhabit my world, but I liked knowing what they were up to. Psychologists will tell you that children can be egoistic, referencing only their own experiences. But they are also imaginative, and reading nudges them outside of themselves.

As I grew older, reading helped me learn. I devoured wonderful and entirely useless bits and bobs of trivia. As my curiosity about the world expanded, I was able to become more informed and more aware. Reading (and I don't mean just books) offers the world and its' stories to you on a platter. You end up having more to say and more to think about - and if you have the mettle, you try to puzzle pieces of awareness together. Reading tests one's intelligence, in the sense that any reader necessarily must process a narrative, an experience, a literary style or a vocabulary at some level, no matter how elementary.

Reading also helped me sense nuance - the multiple angles that inevitably co-exist (albeit uncomfortably) on any issue of import. An avid reader KNOWS that there could be someone else, somewhere else, thinking differently. Knowing this, she is also better equipped to construct a convincing and compelling argument.

Maybe I am romanticizing an anachronistic tradition. But when I speak with cousins or colleagues who are avowed non-readers, I find that the conversations are self-referential. Opinions are presented as facts, and facts having been stated, we move on. Often, these conversations lack context and insight - bouncing from one recent incident or experience to another - "I did this yesterday and it felt great! I met Y and I thought, gosh, he's such a bore! You know, I really think this country will go to the dogs." OK!

I think reading passionately and even indiscriminately reflects an openness of mind. A willingness to peruse, a willingness to be absorbed, informed, and yes, moved. It is truly a way of life, a way of engaging with the world. For me, a good read creates a connection. I feel grateful to the writer, to whoever it was that created an alchemical mix of people, places, relationships and situations. And as my neural tripwires buzz and jangle I often find myself thinking - " Isn't it amazing? These are just words!" And so much more.
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